When a society is caught up in an escalating orgy of violence, lurching toward a racial bloodbath as South Africa is, it takes great courage for a small band of white people to stand up and say: ''We don't have to slaughter each other!''

It takes bravery beyond what most Americans can comprehend for 61 Afrikaners to go to Senegal to meet with 17 exiled black leaders of the African National Congress and join in a public call for the end of apartheid and the forging of a ''nonracial democracy.''

The ANC has been outlawed in South Africa since 1961, and the Botha regime has made it a crime to quote an ANC leader or to ''further the aims'' of the group, whose stated mission is to overthrow apartheid. Small wonder, then, that the whites who went to Dakar have been assailed as ''political terrorists'' or that their families have been harassed. No matter what punishments the Botha forces may heap upon them, these 61 dissidents have given South Africa's ruling white minority something new to ponder.

The Botha government wages an incessant campaign to portray ANC leaders as nothing more than ruthless Marxist killers who, once in power, would kill off white people and turn the country over to the Soviet Union. Since most whites in South Africa have little contact with blacks except in a master-slave relationship, they swallow the fears generated by government propagandists.

Imagine, then, 61 Afrikaners eating, drinking, talking, debating with 17 ANC leaders for four days and saying, ''We are not afraid of a nonracial democracy,'' which would eventually mean black majority rule.

It would be naive to assume that a ''reassurance'' by 61 dissidents will wipe out white fears of a black majority government, even with whites protected by a constitution and a bill of rights. I remember an Afrikaner telling me, ''If they {blacks} get power they're likely to be just as mean to us as we've been to them.''

While Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, leader of the Afrikaner delegation, spoke of an ''extraordinary meeting of the minds,'' the Senegal session pointed up two other major reasons why the spiral of violence is likely to escalate.

First, the ANC leaders said that while they would wish free enterprise to continue in a mixed economy, they would seek gradually to nationalize the mining industry, the banks and some other major industries. South Africans who monopolize the latter sectors will want the government to resist with all force rather than succumb to nationalization.

The ANC leaders also said that they will want ''affirmative action'' programs to redress years of exploitation and discrimination in which the white minority enjoys nice houses, many with pools and tennis courts, while the black majority has been segregated into abject poverty. Most South African whites will oppose lowering their standard of living so blacks can live better.

So it would be naive to suggest that much will change as a result of that white-black meeting in Dakar. But it is good to see that in this seemingly hopeless situation, a few brave souls refuse to accept the inevitability of racial calamity.