The six small "islands" stretch across this "sea" - socially disparate, physically distant and politically disorganized.

From this seeming chaos, Africa's 52d state is to be shaped later this year in a move that will be a crucial test for South Africa's apartheid policy.

But already it is clear that the "islands" face a future about as difficult as their name: Bophuthatswana. For they are the pieces of the fragmented African tribal reserve - broken into bits by the "sea" of white South Africa - that is to become the second of nine black homelands cast off under the master plan of separate development for separate races.

In response to its diverse racial makeup - roughly 18 million blacks and 4 million whites - South Africa has decided to make its nine tribal reserves into African mini-states over the next few years, carving up the country according to "traditional tribal boundaries," in all cases fragmented, that in the end will give the dominant black population only 17 per cent of the land. The Transkei homeland became South Africa's first offspring last October.

But Bophuthatswana is likely to be a better indicator of the future of the homelands policy than the Transkei was, for its problems are more typical - and more difficult to solve in the current South African context.

In fact, the controversy over this strange country-to-be has become so great that two weeks ago its own chief minister, Lucas Mangope, decided he did not want independence after all.

Physically, a visitor would have to cross 12 border posts to tour the scattered country, which is spread out over three of South Africa's four provinces.

Ethnically, the homeland is also fragmented: The Tswana tribe dominates, but one-third of the 880,310 population is made up of dissident tribes - Zulus, Shangaans and Sothos.

Six months before statehood, Bophuthatswana is already fighting off two serious secessionist movements led by opposing tribes, who argue that their being grouped with the Tswanas contradicts the government's policy of dividing South Africa into ethnically pure states, both black and white.

Economically, about 70 per cent of the new state's income this year will come from South Africa, making it, as the Johannesburg Sunday Times explained, "one of the most dependent independent states" on the continent.

And politically, the world is likely to ignore the birth of Bophuthatswana, as it did the Transkei's last October, since recognition of the homeland amounts to recognition of apartheid.

Even Bophuthatswana politicians now seem reluctant to face independence because of a long-simmering dispute that has become the central point of opposition citizenship.

Under the bill to grant independence, all Tswana tribesmen will authomatically become citizens of Bophuthatswana, whether they live there or not.

This will be a serious problem, since more than 1.1 million of the estimated 1.7 million Tswana now live outside the homelands, working in "white" cities and farms. Many have never lived in or even visited the territory that is to become their "nation" Dec. 6.

Overnight they will become aliens in the land of their birth, required to carry passports and subject to strict immigration laws that will put Africans in a more precarious and vulnerable position than ever before.

On May 23, chief Mangope threatened to rejet independence because of the clause. In a surprise letter to Parliament during the reading of the Bophuthatswana independence bill, Mangope and his six Cabinet officials warned that they were "not prepared to accept indepedence at all costs," and demanded amendment of the citizenship clause so that Tswanas living outside the homeland could retain their South African citizenship.

But the eleventh-hour opposition probably came too late, for Mangope had already signed the bill.

The bill has already gone through its third and final reading in Parliament, and it is expected to be passed easily before the end of the session later this month. This will be the last official step clearing the way to independence.

It appears doubtful at this point that the Minister of Bantu (black) Administration and Development, M.C. Botha, will even respond to the controversial letter and its demands. Transkei Chief Minister Kaiser Matanzima made the same noises over the citizenship dispute last year - to no effect.

But it will take more than an act of Parliament to make this homeland work, for Mangope faces unprecedented problems at home.

First is the problem of pulling the nation together. There are 66,000 North Sotho tribesmen who want to pull out of Bopthuthatswana and join only Lebowa homeland. They recognize only Chieftainess Ester Kekana as their leader, refuse to participate in Bophuthatswana politics, and have pledged not to allow the Tswana flag to fly over their enclave on one of the six "islands."

A second secessionist threat has been made by the estimated 24,000 Basotho in the Thaba Nchu enclave, who want to join the Qwaqwa homeland and are supported by Qwaqwa Chief Kenneth Mopeli.

Both dissident groups fear that the Tswana nationalism that is the foundation of the country-to-be will lead to discrimination, and perhaps persecution, of the minority tribes.

There is also the problem of the young militants, who last year burned down the Bophuthatswana legislative assembly because "we are opposed to indepedence," as one student told a government commission investigating the racial disorders.

None of this bodes will for the fledging government trying to build a stable political base.

Economic development will also be difficult. Bophuthatswana does not even have a completed capital yet. Contractors are scurrying to complete the basic structures at Mmabatho, the new site that translates as "mother of the nation."

In terms of social services, there is only one doctor for every 16,000 residents, one post office for every 78,000, and one telephone for every 1,000.

Most of the Africans still live off the land, barely self-sufficient. Although some of the "islands" border Botswana, Bophuthatswana will remain largely dependent on South Africa for food, medical equipment, and other basic supplies. It will also rely on South Africans to run its mines, which hold significant deposits of sandstone, limestone, granite, platinum, iron ore, manganese, chrome, nickel and copper.

But further industrialization will be at least partially stymied because manpower is concentrated on one "island," while potential industrial and mining sites are centered on another.

Consolidation of the six chunks of land is the only "easy" answer to these problems - but it appears that the South African government would rather subsidize the homeland than force white farmers in the area separating the enclaves to sell out.

In many ways, the independence of Bophuthatswana will be a more valid test of the homeland policy than the Transkei was, for the first tribal reserve had a historical claim to independence, and had no serious land divisions or tribla differences.

The other seven homelands scheduled for independence over the next few years share, in different degrees, the problems of Bophuthatswana.

But if the government's reaction to the demands and problems of Bophuthatswana to set the example, there is little chance that the government will change its plan to establish black satellite states - even if their chances of survival are small.