THE NEWEST AFRICAN nation is Bophuthatswana, second of South Africa's 10 tribal homelands to be spun off as an independent nation. Half of the country's 18 million blacks live in homelands (the other half in urban townships), and it is Pretoria's intention to spin off all 10 homelands and thereby to reduce the number of blacks in South Africa proper to a level that psychologically and politically the 4 million whites can better manage. Bophuthatswana is small and poor and dependent, but not more so than a dozen or more other African states. One might think that the international community would be warmly welcoming the new state and congratulating it for exchanging apartheid for liberty.

In fact, only South Africa and Transkei, the first homeland to take independence, recognize Bophuthatswana. Quite rightly, the rest of the world is troubled by the circumstances of its birth. The purpose of granting independence to tribal homelands is to strengthen white power within South Africa's borders. By this policy Pretoria evades its responsibility to grant political and economic justice to homeland blacks and keeps under its thumb the urban blacks who provide the cheap labor supporting white privilege. Homeland independence is racial exploitation by another name.

In South Africa, urban blacks generally see this policy as one of divide and rule. Many, if not most, of the homeland blacks who are its intended beneficiaries see independence as a fraud. But there is another dimension to the issue. Right now, independence is a shabby deal. Bophuthatswana, for instance, is in 19 noncontiguous pieces, its public services are shameful, and in accepting independence it let Pretoria lift South African citizenship from the 60 per cent of the Tswana people who don't even live in the new state. But suppose South Africa were to sweeten the deal - by consolidating territory, increasing the subsidy, giving nonresident Tswanas their choice of citizenship, and so on. Such an offer, making the homelands more self-respecting and attractive, would greatly affect the South African political dialogue.

By Western standards, equality and justice for all South Africans within a single South African state is the ideal. But some reform-minded elements in the ruling National Party wish to move in the direction of "improving" apartheid. Certainly, as long as Pretoria does pursue the homeland policy, it should make of the homelands something other than third-class rural slums.