SO SOLIDLY is "apartheid" identified in the public mind with racial injustice and legal repression that many people find it hard to imagine that this system of white-minority control in South Africa has any capacity for internal reform.Some people, of course, believing that aparthied is irredeemable, see an eventual openly violent convulsion as the only way out. Others, while not yet ready to consign a whole society to revolution, tend to play down whatever hopeful signs may from time to time appear in order to spur the ruling whites to further change. Almost no one, however, can pretend to have anticipated the full scope of reforms, plans and stated official intentions that have come to light in South Africa in recent days

The new program breaks down into two parts. In the first, the government is moving toward various reforms in labor and employment, housing and property, and personal rights. In the second, the government is exploring ways to consult nonwhites in matters affecting their daily lives and the future of their communities, and to bring them into a political process. Such is the well-deserved suspicion of nonwhites toward their white rulers that each of these projects has been criticized as hedged and inadequate and as designed merely to confuse the people and to throw foreign critics off the scent. At the same time, these measures have startled many blacks and stirred tentative hopes in some of the most thoughtful among them that the government just may be starting to provide them an alternative to violence and despair.

Is it so? The only answer that count are South Africans'. Outsiders can note, however, that there is always at bottom an element of the gamble in any great process of social change. Neither the people trying to manage it nor those who stand to be affected by it can know how it will come out. Sensing this, some whites resist even these preliminary steps for fear they will put South Africa on a slippery slope from which there is no escape short of the loss of power. So-called "enlightened" Afrikaners are nonetheless willing to venture forth. They calculate that whatever the risks of starting, they are smaller than the risks of standing fast.

Blacks have another dilemma. A few among them have already set out on the revolutionary path-a very long one. But despite everything, more than a few remain ready to take a white hand offered in good faith. They cannot do so, however, without receiving assurances that they will not merely be risking personal destruction and a loss of political credibility. The government's own past deceit and neglect accounts for this state of affairs, and it puts a burden on the government to go to double lengths now.

The government's recent gestures are far from adding up to a record of performance that would earn it confidence. The jury it out, and will be for some years, on whether it is possible at all to reform apartheid in ways consistent with the dignity of nonwhites. Yet it is hard not to take notice when the Rand Daily Mail, no government patsy, says, "In the past week there has been greater and more hopeful racial change than we have had in the nearly 31 years that the Nationalist Government has been in power," and when blacks of substance pay careful, if quiet, attention.