South Africa

At sunset, the four-lane causeway that sweeps into Cape Town offers the traveler what is surely one of the world's most spectacular sights. Peaks that loom over the city are bathed in purple light of a declining sun which also sends rays bouncing off the glistening downtown high-rises.

Natural beauties - unmarred, even enhanced in places by temples of modern architecture - are among South Africa's virtues. Yet, the settings strike a short-time visitor as sad somehow, merely backdrops to the country's wrenching troubles.

"How Long Will South Africa Survive?" Is the title of a thoughtful survey published abroad last year by a British scholar. The question seems to haunt every conversation here, whether it be with prosperous Afrikaner bankers, white "liberals" or nonwhites:

Afrikaners, the dominant white group, backbone of the country's conservatism and designers of its apartheid policy, are at turns defiant, indignant, reasoning and deeply worried. Confronted with queries from outsiders about their futtire in a continent where they have become the last remaining symbol of centuries of colonial oppression. Afrikaners claim that they are Africans too.

Their mainly Dutch ancestry, intermingled with other European strins, has long been subsumed in a culture undeniably their own.They say they have the same right to remain here after three centuries in a black land as Americans have a right to stay in territories wrested from the Indians. If only left to handle matters themselves, Afrikaners in the ruling Nationalist Party declare, South Africa's long-term racial problems could be solved.

As calmly explained by Gerritt Viljoen, rector of the Rand Afrikaans University and also reputedly leader of the Broederbond - the secret society in which Afrikaners plan their strategy for the years ahead, confederation is the answer.

This is an updated version of the "separate development" concept advanced by the Nationalists a decade or so ago in which the black tribes of South Africa would be sent to nine separate rural homelands, nominally independent but under the protection and realistic control of the white minority.

Among the flaws of old-style separate development (apartheid) is that it effectively excluded any voice for the millions of urban blacks living in ghetto-like townships around white cities as well as persons of mixed race - known as Coloreds - and the Indian community.

The new thinking, according to the rector, calls for an eventual confederation made up of tribal states, self-governing city-states in the large black townships and a hydra-headed parliament for Indians, Coloreds and whites.

"This policy," Viljoen said "is a complete reversal of the purely separatist approach."

WHILE PRESERVING the communal identities of all South Africa's peoples, confederation is intended to spread power and opportunity, but apparently only a bit because whites still would be firmly in economic control.

Viljoen acknowledged that the process is extremely complicated and will take patience from all concerned to get it implemented. Meantime, "petty apartheid," a euphemism for the lengthy list of discriminations to which blacks and other nonwhites are subjected, must be abolished and "very fast," said the rector - certainly faster than is now the case.

The rector's ideas, offered graciously in the sonorous lilt of an Afrikaner speaking English, seem less of a change the closer one looks. He forsees, for example, continuing the policy of segregated education "because of differences in cultural background" and segregated suburban trains because, he said, South Africans are not ready to mingle shoulder-to-shoulder in mass transit.

Such are the limitations of Afrikaner Nationalist moderation.

White "liberals," such as those in the Progressive Party, with 17 members in Parliament, and several large English-language newspapers, press hard for reforms, such as a genuine end to petty apartheid now. They have a poignant weakness, however, that is readily apparent. In Parliament they are trounced on every ballot and their published arguments are circumscribed by the dangers of punishment under various antisubversion statutes.

"South Africa," one progressive put it wryly," has the freest press and the most active opposition of any police state in the world."

The "liberal" vision for the future includes a meaningful place for whites in a multiracial society. Ironically, the closet thing they have to an African model is Rhodesia - until recently vilified in most international forums on a scale comparable to South Africa. Under the terms of Ian Smith's internal settlement with black leaders, blacks are to get majority political control while whites keep their traditional influence on the economy, at least for the short term.

THERE IS SOME small comfort for the liberals in what amounts to a steady erosion of the most petty forms of discrimination in urban centers like Johannesburg and Cape Town. Blacks can now get served in a number of the best restaurants and stay at "international" class hotels where a single for one night costs about half the weekly salary of a wellpaid black. They can go to some down-town movie theaters (Soweto, the vast black township of more than a million people outside Johannesburg has only one. In Cape Town, buses have been integrated. And theoretically, sporting events are now multiracial, although the practice is still spotty.

While Nationalists contend that these are substantive adjustments in apartheid. Liberals say they are cosmetic, but at least a beginning.

While prepared to take advantage of what they call scornfully these "crumbs," urban blacks increasingly are fixed on a more basic goal, their spokesmen say, a country called Azania, akin to Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Namibia (Southwest Africa) and the other black African countries to the north.

What strikes an outsider most about conversations with blacks in Soweto is that their vision for the future is so fundamentally at odds with that of the Nationalists. There is simply no support for the theories outlined by Viljoen, the rector. They are not even taken seriously, although tribal peoples in rural areas are said to be more malleable. White liberals are largely dismissed in Soweto as ineffectual, too hapless and too compromised to be significant.

With no alternative to ease their frustrations, blacks say that more of them are turning to radicalism to models like Frelimo, the Marxist liberation group that took over from the Portuguese in Mozambique.

"There is the beginning of a major qualititative change here," said one person. "Young black guys are starting to pick up weapons."

SOWETO, WHICH ERUPTED into bloody violence in June 1976, is quiet now. On a sunny Saturday morning, the cramped little houses where families live as many as 10 people in two rooms, show universally recognizable signs of ghetto life: Small, barefoot children, beer drinking, women scrubbing floors and mangy dogs.

But there is seething beneath the surface. "A disease," as one observer of Soweto put it, "for which the riots in 1976 were but a mild rash."

"Thirty years ago," said Nthato Matlana, a leading Soweto spokesmen, recently released after five months in detention," we wanted nothing much, a voice in Parliament. Today we are not asking for some legislators or the repeal of unjust laws.

"Now we want control. Yes, we still hope to persuade the whites to share peacefully. But so far, there has been no success."

Meanwhile the clock for South Africa is running.