"WHEN I CONSIDER the political future of the natives in South Africa," wrote Jan Smuts in 1906, "I must say that I look into shadow and darkness; and then I feel inclined to shift the intolerable burden of that skin problem to the ampler shoulders and stronger brains of the future."

Smuts lived and prospered for half a century more, without trying especially hard to solve the great conundrum. Today the skin problem seems more urgent but no less baffling. Since 1942 -- the year of Ethiopia's liberation from the Italians -- all but three of the current 54 African states have received, gratefully or otherwise, their independence from the hands of white minorities or white imperial powers.

White South Africa is now almost as odd an anachronism as the prehistoric coelacanth, believed extinct by scientists, then found one day flapping in the nets of some African fishermen off the Cape. But how long can the coelacanth survive? This is the question that, in one form or another, echoes through these four volumes. It cannot be shirked just because all the available political options are now so excuciating to White South Africa. Not thinking about the unthinkable may postpone the evil day. In the end it may lead down the slope to Armageddon.

It is the great merit of Robert I. Rotberg's new analysis, Suffer the future: Policy choices in Southern Africa , that he puts the kaleidoscopic options in the clearest possible context. This is not a book primarily for specialists. The style is lucid, without being elegant. There are interesting chapters on Namibia and Zimbabwe, the latter overtaken by event, but prescient nonetheless. The meat of the book is contained in two slices: a chapter on the vulnerability of South Africa, and some sensible suggestions for the West to exploit it.

How vulnerable is the great white coelacanth from storms in the world outside? Or, to put the question in more practical terms, what chance have we in the West of cajoling or prodding or squeezing South Africa into reforming itself before it is too late? Political pressure by itself has in the past proved almost laughably ineffective. For 30 years South African governments have planned to alienate, quite literally, the majority of their fellow citizens, and have remained equally deaf to the advice of their friends and the threats of their enemies. Towards Namibia and Zimbabwe, it is true, Vorster's government seemed suprisingly agile and pragmatic. But it was guerrilla power -- the power of the Kalashnikov -- that brought about this change of heart: the gruesome wars of liberation that winkled the Portugese out of Angola and Mozambique and brought Black Africa to the edge of South Africa's laager.

In 1979 there have been further apparent changes of heart. In the wake of a whole series of crises, induced by the world recession, the Soweto uprising Steve Biko's death, the Muldergate scandal and so on, Pieter Bothahs new government has promised a new deal to the increasingly desperate majority. Separate development is to develop rather less separately. Boths talks of reforming apartheid in tow of its three dimensions: to change its social basis, which prevents ambitious blacks from living near, or with, their white fellow citizens, and its economic basis, which prevents ambitious blacks from exercising the usual barganing power of an industrial people. Political apartheid -- the denial of voting rights to blacks -- is of course to remain. Are Botha's promises rhetoric? a year has passed and none have been made law. Professor Rotberg believes that it is the West, by judicious use of its moneybags, that can help convert reformist pledges into a reform movement. So now is the time to take Botha at his word, and prod.

What kind of prodding would prove most beneficial? Rotberg dilligently lists the possible economic levers. Oil may certainly prove the Achilles heel of the economy: Gigantic efforts in extracting oil from coal will make South Africa half self-sufficient in oil. With this exception, South Africa is the most self-sufficient exporting nation, apart from the Soviet Union. Gold was the rock on which modern South Africa was built, and it remains its most valuable export. A gold boycott would cripple its economy. But could such a boycott be organized, when half the world's gold is dug out of the South African veld? The same goes for strategic raw materials -- chromium, manganese, platinum, bauxite and cobalt -- needed for steel-making and other forms of high technology. In 1976, a study team commissioned by the U.S. Department of Commerce concluded that in the event of an interruption of the supply of these materials from South Africa there would be a brief period of higher prices, and then the United States would find it easy enough to arrange a long-term source of supply. Professor Rotberg disagrees. He explains how the world is becoming increasingly dependent on South Africa for these strategic materials as other sources dwindle. Ironically, South Africa is at present paid relatively little for these exports.

There are more subtle strategies, Rotberg argues, than trying to boycott raw materials which are more essential for us to buy than for them to sell. South Africa drinks up foreign loans and foreign investment with the thirst of a dipsomaniac. It is here that the economic giant -- and the apartheid state -- are most vulnerable. Indeed Botha's astonishing change of heart in 1979 is less astonishing if one considers his perilous dependence on the moneybags of the West. In 1978 America had $1.9 billion directly invested in South Africa, spread over 300 American firms. About $2.3 billion more was indirectly invested, mainly in South African-controlled mining companies. And in 1976 American banks had made loans of $2.2 billion to South Africa. The direct investment is 1 percent of the U.S. total. But it represents 17 percent of all foreign investment in South Africa. Britain, with 10 percent of its foreign investment in South Africa, is the only country whose economy would be noticeably damaged by disinvestment there. But a restriction on new loans and investment could be managed fairly painlessly for all concerned except South Africa. In fact, one of the main reasons for Botha's change of heart must be the alarming new threat of disinvestment or reduced investment by the West. b

In America, under pressure from universitites, churches and unions, major banks have agreed not to lend new money to the apartheid state or the firms it controls. At the same time, 116 of the 300 American firms have now accepted the "Sullivan code": a promise to pull up their socks and stop discriminating against their black employes. At least they are pledged to this. In practice it has been found that their change of heart has not yet resulted in the creation of any black senior managers, let alone blacks in the company boardrooms. Many of the firms have partly desegregated their working areas, and most of them have improved facilities for blacks. There is room for improvement. And there is time -- or is there?

Unlike Professor Rotberg, who writes about the miseries of apartheid with professional detachment Gwendolen M. Carter has suffered with the subjects of her study. In 1958 she published her famous political analysis, The Politic of Inequality . She was then forbidden a visa, and the ban lasted for 15 years. Now, perhaps as one more example of the belated wind of change blowing through Pretoria, she has been allowed back to her old haunts. She spent a year travelling to see and scrutinize politicians, especially black politicians. Her conclusions in Which Way Is South Africa Going ? are predictably mixed. The most dramatic change she observed since her last visit is the new aggressive mood of the blacks. In the townships she met a new self-assurance and a confidence that they would secure their rights in an "undivided" South Africa. Blacks seemed undaunted by the government's current policy of trying to develop the homelands as independent states to which the great bulk of the African population could be "repatriated." She was told: "We may die, but our people will succeed." By contrast she reports on the growing sense of insecurity and bewilderment among the whites, and the consequent drain on the population, temporarily masked by the influx of white refugees from ex-colonies of the north.

Professor Carter's forecast for the future is clouded. She seems skeptical about Botha's success in trying to build up a satisfied African urban elite as a counterweight to African nationalism. How can a balck elite be satisfied without challenging white political supermacy? And what of the threat of urban violence escalating, as it did in 1976, and firghtening off foreign investment? She suggests that political initiative may be slowly passing to blacks. She identifies a struggle among three sides: the Inkatha movement led by the Zula chief, Gatsha Buthelezi, who has taken Botha at his word and is trying to squeeze reforms out of the administration; the more aggressive black-consciousness groups, WASA and AZAPO, which have already captured the imagination of many urban blacks, especially the young blacks; and the men with the Kalashnikov rifles, the guerrillas awaiting in the wings, on the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. To them the successful seven-year was in Zimbabwe and the current war in Namibia are mere dress rehersals for the performance ahead. Fifty-one African countires liberated. Only two to go.

Who is to win this tug of war for African hearts and mind? A compassionate guide is Jason Laures and Ettagale Laures South Africa: Comping of Age Under Apartheid . The authors spent a year in the country and have written bittersweet profiles of eight young people from contrasting backgrounds. Princess is a pretty Xhosa from Crossroads. She is one of the 200,000 squatters living in the Cape. She studies English, and looks after the younger children while her parents are out at work. It is illegal for her to live there, or indeed anywhere in South Africa, although she was born in Cape Town. This is because in 1976 South Africa made Transkei the "independent" Xhosa homelands. Her parents left Transkei years before that, but are now deemed foreigners in South Africa. If the full rigor of apartheid were appled the entire Xhosa people would be packed off tomorrow to the Transkei. But of course apartheid is tempered with expediency. Xhosas are needed in South Africa's mines, factories, farms, offices, homes. So probably Princess will remain on sufferance at Crossroads, glad of its amenities -- tin shacks, even a tin shack for the family dog, and little gardens scraped from the sand. But Princess will continue to be discriminated against in everything that affects her: college, home, employment. Symanthis is an Indian girl from Durban whose home is threatened by a government scheme to relocate Indians. Mthoka is a Zulu doomed to work in one of the Rank mines for a fraction of white wages. It will take more than Botha's new deal to satisfy Princess, Symathia, Mithoko and the millions of black and brown South Africans they represent.

In Martyrs and Fanatics: South Africa and Human DESTINY, Peter Dreyer boils up history, political analysis and personal narrative in a pungent South African stew. There is a devastating account of the impact of the 17th-century Dutch settlers on the San and Khoikholi peoples at the Cape. In the first riging against white rule, a Khoikhol called Eykamma was captured, mortally wounded. Before he died, the victors told him: "Your people have now once for all lost the land around the Cape ... and you must accordingly never dwell on the idea of geting it back again through peace or through war."

Today Eykamma's 20 million kith and kin dwell on the idea of getting it back through both methods, after three centuries of humiliation.