IN 1964 South Africa sent to prison for life seven leaders of the African National Congress, the black nationalist organization that had turned to revolution in frustration after 50 years of peaceful protest. A wasted quarter of a century later, the white authorities have now freed one of the seven, the aging, unrepentant Govan Mbeki. He had refused to meet the condition of renouncing violence but was freed anyway, partly because officials shrink from the martyrdom and public outrage that could flow from the death of a major ANC figure in prison. President P. W. Botha is now using the Mbeki release as a trial run to determine whether to go on and free others, notably Nelson Mandela, the ANC leader with the largest following.

Almost all blacks in South Africa and some whites understand that the crisis in the country cannot be eased without a political dialogue in which the blacks who take part are those who truly represent their people. This is the incontestable case for releasing Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, for unbanning organizations such as the ANC and for allowing them the rights the white minority enjoys. The ANC is not the exclusive spokesman for South African blacks, but it is a principal one, and no real progress is imaginable without its full participation.

The white regime has long tried to pick the black population's leaders, a process that pro-duces puppets with little value as interlocutors. This has led the government to reach out for figures of stature, first of all Chief Gatsha Buthelezi. He is a proven opponent of apartheid -- who pleads for his friend Nelson Mandela's release. But he is also a major politician whose Zulu tribal base puts him at odds with the nonethnic ANC. And he is a moderate who is favored by some whites for his resistance to job-killing sanctions and admired by others for his plan for power-sharing among the races in Natal -- Kwazulu.

President Botha hopes to draw Chief Buthelezi into its proposed national black advisory council. The president perhaps figures he may then be able to draw in the ANC -- or be better positioned to exclude it. This is the murky game the government plays by letting out Mr. Mbeki, trolling for Chief Buthelezi and cultivating hopes that Mr. Mandela may be released soon too. Itis the government's desperate, devious way to avoid the hard steps democratic reconciliation requires.