Afrikaners says NBC correspondent Garrick Utley, hold the key to whether there will be conciliation or catastrophe in southern Africa.

By examining the clear-cut choice facing white South Africans, Utley quickly establishes a dramatic opening for "NBC Reports: Africans Defiant White Tribe," a one-hour special airing tonight at 10 on Channel 4 (WRC-TV).

The program carefully avoids interviews of government officials, a common feature of most specials on South Africa. Instead, Utley, acting as narrator and reporter, talks with a tobacco farmer, students, workers, intellectuals, black opposition leaders.

Most of the interviews are with whites, who control the country. It's a fundamental way to look at an explosive situation that had recently erupted in widespread violence and death in the Johannesburg township of Soweto.

The South African racial problem also has brought threats of military intervention by some African leaders and incursion by blacks from neighboring African nations. Afrikaners also fear the intervention of Cuba.

However, the program ignores many subtleties in the South African social and political situation. It is not a simple confrontation as Utley says between rural and provincial Afrikaners, who are religiously motivated, and oppressed black South Africans. Many Afrikaners, particularly those in urban areas, see apartheid (racial separation) only as a practical economic method for exploiting cheap labor.

Also, the role of Asians, a class of small shop owners, and coloreds in South African society is glossed over quickly.

Utley begins by asking Afrikaners how they will respond to growing black demands for equal participation in government and national life. All, including famous heart surgeon Dr. Christian Barnard, resist the idea of conciliation.

Several Afrikaners rationalize their opposition in an unnerving fashion - by pointing to what they say is their convenant with God. "We are here for a certain purpose created by God," says the wife of farmer Bushie Meiring.

Most of the practices of racial separation and idea of racial superiority will be familiar to American viewers, who have seen them repeated on numerous shows about South Africa. What makes this program noteable - even sometimes powerful - is the calm dispassionate view Utley takes in uncovering information.

His interviews of Meiring, an advocate of white superiority to the death, and Zulu tribal leader Gasha Butoleje, are balanced equally.

Utley examines how how black labor is exploited on the farms and in the gold mines. He looks at the chilling government policy of the establishment of homelands for tribes and the subsequent offer of statehood in those lands. The catch, however, as the correspondent points out, is that is accepting statehood in the provinces, such as the Transkei, black South Africans lose their citizenship and receive a passport so they can return and work.

The final frightening prospect, Utley points out, is the country and whites arming themselves against the potential of attack.The country may even have nuclear capability and some whites advocate its use against countries that interfere with South Africa.

Both sides - black and white - predict a grim and uncertain future for their country.