ALMOST DAILY, events in South Africa parallel what happened two decades ago in the American South. Although imperfect, the American South now coming of age may serve as the best model for thoughtful South Africans to study for their future.

For more than half a century, beginning in the 1890s, rigid racial segregation, from the cradle to the grave, permeated society in the American South. One-party politics based on white supremacy excluded blacks from effective political participation. The South's economy, devastated by the Civil War, limited blacks to the most menial jobs, and a segregated and unequal education system reinforced the social order.

Within that system, there existed personal contacts and individual relationships that crossed racial lines, the legacy of the paternalistic side of plantation life in which house servants became extensions of families. These relationships nurtured the myth of the "sunny South." That myth coexisted with the image of the "benighted South," which was symbolized by lynchings that reinforced a social order based on repression and fear.

Ultimately, the rule of law prevailed in transforming the South after the civil-rights movement dramatized the quest for justice. Heroic southern judges such as Elbert P. Tuttle and John Minor Wisdom of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and Frank M. Johnson Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Alabama responded by translating the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, into a broad mandate for racial justice.

Despite the Constitution, apartheid had existed for more than 60 years in the American South, in part because the Supreme Court in 1896 approved in the Plessy case the "separate but equal" doctrine. The South was able to impose its system because of silent assent or indifference from the rest of the nation, which practiced more subtle forms of discrimination and racism.

Thus, the United States has little claim to moral superiority in regard to South Africa. But without being self-righteous, the United States can refuse to sanction practices it knows are destructive of its own ideals and can offer insights based on its own quite recent experiences.

The contemporary level of violence and repression in South Africa calls to mind the Alabama of the early 1960s, the vivid images of police violence with dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham in 1963 and the savage assault on peaceful marchers in the first march from Selma in 1965.

Thus, the most encouraging sign out of South Africa is the initiative by some of that country's business leaders to begin negotiations with black leaders. In Birmingham, violent confrontation ended only after negotiations that involved the "big mules," the city's business elite.

Birmingham also affected the nation, which watched on television, and the nation's leader at the time, President John F. Kennedy. He responded to Birmingham by pledging to "see if we can develop a legal remedy." Afterwards, he outlined the elements of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, provided a new legal framework for life in the American South.

But in a memorable speech five months before his death, Kennedy told the American people, "but law alone cannot make men see right." He continued, "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities; whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."

The late Alexander Bickel wrote of that time, Birmingham was a turning point "not because it caused President Kennedy to register a sharp change in his policy on civil rights but because that was what President Kennedy was willing and able to do with Birmingham . . . . John Kennedy surely had a choice. He could have stood on a platform of law and order, deploring not only violence but all attempts, which are ever fraught with violence, to change the legal order by extralegal or illegal means."

President Dwight Eisenhower had said that laws do not change the hearts and minds of men and never endorsed the Supreme Court's 1954 decision against segregation, and President Reagan seems to share that view. But Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson after him understood that laws do change human behavior. And, as social psychologists point out, changes in behavior lead to changes in attitudes. As almost anyone who has lived in the American South for the last quarter-century can attest, genuine change has occurred in the racial attitudes of white Southerners.

When I taught a class of 10 white college freshmen at the University of South Carolina last year, all but one raised their hands when asked if they had at least one black friend. The exception was a student from New Jersey. Only one black student attended her high school, she explained, expressing frustration that her background had not provided an opportunity to develop such friendships.

Adult attitudes also have changed, at different individual rates to be sure, but the collective threshold has been raised. A few months ago, I stood by while a television crew interviewed a local NAACP president in a public park on the "white side" of a small Southern town. The speaker, clad in suit and tie, somewhat stridently discussed continuing aspects of racial inequality.

A large-boned white man dressed in work clothes, accompanied by his two young sons, walked over to observe, his arms crossed over his chest, his face expressionless. When the cameraman stopped to change film, the white man asked the black man, "Where are you from?" the first question any Southerner asks a stranger.

The black man responded that he was minister at a black Methodist congregation in the town, and he named the church. The white man then reached out his hand and introduced himself, and his two boys respectfully answered, "Yes, sir" in response to a question the black man asked them about school. Today's South is by no means perfect, but it is different.

Whites and blacks in the region are gradually becoming aware that the term "Southerner" applies to both races and relates to a culture derived essentially from both African and Western European influences.

Blacks in South Africa are demanding common citizenship, equal education and the scrapping of racial laws. For whites there, the problem is compounded by the prospect of relinquishing political dominance to a black majority, a fear that for some is no doubt fed by guilt.

But the fear is also genuine, and many South Africans no doubt see the defense of apartheid as an issue of survival. Yet, growth in South Africa of white opposition to apartheid suggests the developing recognition that the racial system itself cannot survive. The question then becomes what kind of accommodation is possible. If political control is relinquished to non-whites through negotiation rather than revolution, economic dominance by whites who continue their necessary role in the economy can provide leverage, especially in a situation in which non- whites are divided among competing factions with philosophical differences.

The challenge is to develop a concept of nationalism in which the term "South African" can apply to whites, blacks and those of other or mixed races in the country. Such a concept would recognize the cultural origins that make South Africa unique. It also might contribute to the creation of political forms that provide protection of basic rights for the white minority without subjugation of the non-white majority.

In the American South, the experience of recognizing common citizenship, granting equal education and scrapping racial laws has been liberating. The tremendous amount of energy that went into maintaining and defending the system of racial separation now is free to focus on economic development that is seen in the new myth of the Sun Belt.

Like South Africa, the American South essentially is a Protestant region in which the dominant white society had lived in internal conflict between a religion that teaches brotherhood and a culture that didn't. That religious underpinning played a crucial role in the South's acceptance of change, once it came. The elaborate biblical defense of segregation that had developed in the South gave way to the legal response to the demand for justice. Many white Southerners internally came to accept the changes as "the will of God."

The initiatives of the South African businessmen can be viewed as a hopeful sign in the difficult challenge ahead of negotiating nondestructive resolution to difficult and complex problems. Their historic model for accommodation to confrontation might be Birmingham; in the contemporary model for sharing power would be Atlanta, a city dominated economically by whites and politically by blacks.

The critical link between Birmingham and Atlanta is the latter city's present mayor, Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador who is familiar with the complexities of African politics and economic problems. In 1963 in Birmingham, as a top lieutenant to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Young marched in his dungarees in the mornings and changed to a business suit to meet with white business leaders in the afternoon.

There he joined Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Kennedy Justice Department and now a professor of law at Yale University. Marshall won the confidence and respect of the business elite in Birmingham, where he spent weeks sitting up and participating in negotiations after a local newspaper publisher asked that he come to the city.

An invitation from the South African business elite to Andrew Young and Burke Marshall to share their experience could prove helpful. It certainly wouldn't make matters worse.

In the decade ahead, South African whites will have to struggle with the same concept of human equality that was expressed in our nation's Declaration of Independence. America grappled for almost two centuries and endured a terrible civil war before seriously coming to grips with that concept in the last half of the 20th Century.

The analogy between South Africa and the American South, however, is limited. Unlike South Africa, the American South responded in part because of a constitution that provided the basis for legal pressure from the national government -- in a federal system -- that was supported by the rest of the nation. But South Africa at last faces the pressure of world opinion against a system as outmoded today as slavery had become by the time of the American Civil War.

In the 1960s, however, the American South demonstrated it had learned from its history the futility of wasting its resources on a lost cause. The action of the South African businessmen suggests it may not be too late for their country to learn from our history also. As Aldous Huxley remarked, experience is not what happens to us but what we do with what happens to us.