South Africa'a efforts to eliminate racial discrimination are hedged with so many ifs, and or buts that it is often hard to assess how much things have really changed.

Some recent examples

Sports Minister Piet Koornhof declares there are no obstacles to racially mixed sporting events. A few days later, 300 white university students are refused permission to attend the first multiracial soccer game in the black residential area of Snoweto. The explanation: there are no bathrooms for whites at the stadium ower-level bureaucrats.

Blacks and persons of mixed race are admitted to the University of stellenbosch, the alma mater of the last four prime ministers. They are not allowed, however to live with the other students. They must board with people of their own color off campus.

The government announces that all theaters can open to all races. Each theater, however, must apply for apermit to have mixed audiences.

South Africans from mineworkers to university rectors will tell you there is a mood for change in this country, but the government is not harnessing this mood. Instead, it appears to drift, causing confusion about where it is going and allowing its ministers' directives to be sabotaged by over-level bureucrats.

The reasons for this state of affairs tell much about the government here and its style of rule.

Prime Minister John Vorster is haunted by the fact that he was the only National Party leader to preside over a split in the party since it came to power in 1948 and the only one to lose seats to an opposition party (in the 1970 election).

The party now bulges with its largest parliament majority in history, 133 seats out of 165, and includes men with varying opinions on how fast South Africa should move to eliminate racial discrimination.

Vorster consequently sees his role as the congealer, not the initiator. He dare not become controversial lest he presdide over another split. Direction of change, therefore, is left to individual ministers.

"Vorster is not a great man because he has no vision, said one disgruntled Afrikaner. "If he would only come out and say, "This is what we are going to do in the next five years,' and then start to do it . . . Instead he rules adhoc, always leaving the impression of giving into pressure." (KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)nother inhibitor of change is the bureaucracy. Nigel Mandy, head of the modern Carlton office and shopping complex, said:

"I spent more time trying to get one multiracial toilet at the top of my building than the government spent in its public relations after the [Steve] Biko affair," he said, recalling his months of negotiating and letter writing.

A third point is that the ruling party's greatest asset, conservative rural support, becomes its greatest handicap when it wants to eliminate racial discrimation.

Rural districts have greater weight in the electoral process than urban areas. These conservative voters, who put the National Party into power, now hinder it from moving forward speedily with changes.

There is also the government's attitude. "Government spokesmen rarely use the word "change'. That would be admitting they had been wrong," an observer said. "They speak in their own code, usually announcing an 'adaptation' policy."

Most "adaptations" are accompanied by resassurance that the government is not demanding or encouraging them. When Connie Mulder, the minister in charge of black affairs, recently said that permits were no longer required for blacks to attend churches in white areas - a requirement that most churches have long ignored - he added:

"This decision does not mean that churches or church councils are now compelled to open their doors to all people at all times. Nor does it mean that it is the wish or policy of the governement that churches should open to all people at all times."

The government and its supporters defend the pace and quality of change by saying that not everything can come at once. They point out that they are a minority removing racial restrictions, not the majority as was the case in the United States.

"The government is doing more in a short time than anything we could have expected a year or two, or more ago. The world - and the critics - should have patience," said the pro-government Citizen newspaper.

So the government indeed is inching forward on changes to lessen racial discrimination, but it is often hard to tell just where it is going and whether it will be fast enough to satisfy rising expectations of blacks.