CAPE TOWN -- A democratic revolution has come to South Africa, where a large portion of the dominant white elite has finally lost confidence in the morality of a system that provides democracy and comfort for whites, repression and poverty for blacks and, for Indians, economic opportunity without political rights. The outcome of this revolution is uncertain, but one thing is clear: the apartheid system will not survive.

There is already a new politics in South Africa -- a pluralistic, multi-racial politics that began with the ''unbanning'' of the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan African Congress (PAC), the release of their leaders and the promise of President F. W. de Klerk to secure repeal of the laws on which apartheid rests and begin work on a new constitution.

De Klerk seemed a skillful, affable, conventional Afrikaner politician until he pushed to a point of no return the reforms begun by his predecessor. A seasoned leader of the National Party, he knows full well that several opinion polls show a strong white backlash against his policies.

Nonetheless, he notes coolly that he has the political wherewithal to keep his promises. He says his National Party and the smaller Democratic Party together have 60 percent of the votes in South Africa's all-white parliament and adds that both parties are committed to repealing the legal foundations of apartheid. ''There will be a comfortable majority for repeal,'' he asserted to me.

Andries Treurnicht, leader of the Conservative Party (the third important white party), predicts civil war if De Klerk carries out his stated intention to dismantle the system of racial separation. But De Klerk believes his policies have the support of a white majority in the nation at large as well as in the Parliament.

He draws assurance from the fact that the Conservative Party was able to turn out only 60,000 at its recent national rally, although it had worked long and hard to draw a minimum of 100,000. Still, 60,000 are enough to give a certain weight to Treurnicht's threat of obstruction and predictions of civil war.

Some people take these threats very seriously.

''They are preparing to overthrow the government by revolutionary means,'' ANC leader Walter Sisulu told me last week in Soweto. ''When Treurnicht said, 'We are arming to defend ourselves,' they were not being attacked by anybody. Black men are not attacking anybody.''

In fact, however, the comment of this long-time commander of the ANC's ''armed wing'' was not accurate. Some black men were attacking other black men even as we spoke. Overall, 3,000 have died in the ''black-on-black'' violence in Natal Province.

There are three major political groups among South Africa's blacks, who constitute about 70 percent of the total population -- the ANC under Nelson Mandela, a Marxist-style national liberation group that has always been and remains closely tied to"There is already a new politics in South Africa -- a pluralistic, multi-racial politics that began with the 'unbanning' of the African National Congress and Pan African Congress."South Africa's Communist Party; Inkatha, a Zulu-based democratic party under the leadership of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi; and the PAC, a more ambiguous but rapidly growing Pan African black-consciousness party.

The ANC and Inkatha disagree on the most fundamental issues of politics. They differ, for example, on the place of ''armed struggle'' in South Africa today and on nationalization of the economy. Inkatha emphasizes nonviolence, pluralism and the market economy. The ANC affirms a legitimacy of armed struggle to combat white dominance and advocates nationalization to rectify economic ''imbalances'' between the races.

Both the ANC and Inkatha support black-white cooperation and are open to white members. Neither has the explicit racialist emphasis that is widely attributed to the PAC. Neither glorifies black consciousness nor advocates generalized violence against whites (''one settler, one bullet.''). (It is not entirely clear that the PAC's reputation is warranted. So far, it has more often been the target than the perpetrator of violence.)

The proximity of power has exacerbated rivalries among these groups, especially in Natal, where thousands have already died in terrible black-on-black violence that rages amid miles of miserable shacks outside of Durban. Although the violence has developed a momentum of its own, it is fundamentally a bloody struggle for power between the followers of the ANC coalition and those of Buthelezi's Inkatha.

Each party to the conflict blames the other for the violence. But my inquiries strongly indicate Buthelezi's Inkatha is generally the reactor, the ANC coalition the initiator. One of South Africa's most respected liberal editorialists concluded recently that ''evidence is accumulating to suggest that the ANC's satellite organizations, if not the ANC itself, have embarked on a strategy of eliminating their rivals for political support in the townships by assassination and terror.''

The violence has spread far beyond Inkatha's territory and has targeted all major opponents of the ANC coalition -- Inkatha, black-consciousness groups, ANC dissidents and black municipal counselors in many townships. It is difficult not to see in these bloody struggles a resemblance to the PLO's relentless war against its Palestinian rivals on the West Bank and Gaza, and the war of Marxist rebels against elected officials in El Salvador.

If, despite the intelligent and reasonable demeanor of its leaders, the ANC remains a fundamentally Leninist liberation movement, then it cannot contribute to the democratization of South Africa. The fact simply must be faced, moreover, that in his recent meetings with Moammar Gadhafi, Yasser Arafat and Ethiopia's Col. Haile Mariam Mengistu, Nelson Mandela has been speaking as if this is the case.

It is also extremely important to determine where the PAC stands on crucial questions of violence, peaceful change and civil rights.

Building democracy in South Africa does not mean replacing a white oligarchy with a black one-party dictatorship. It cannot be achieved by government initiatives alone. It also depends on understanding that the most important political difference is not between black and white. It is between those committed to the method of democracy and those ready to practice the method of violence.