After all the buffeting that blacks have taken in over 30 years of apartheid rule, you would think that by now they would have become seasoned cynics. Former prime minister John Vorster proclaimed that he wanted just six months to transform the political face of South Africa. Roelof (Pik) Botha, who was at that time his ambassador at the United Nations, declared with a great flourish that South Africa was moving away from discrimination based on race. And what happened? Nothing more than the sort of intransigence that caused the 1976 uprisings and the orgy of bannings and detentions without trial capped by the death in detention of Steve Biko.

And yet when P.W. Botha came on the scene as prime minister, hopes began to rise again. Here was a man who appeared quite decisive and who knew white South Africa must adapt or die. He was speaking in a way that we had not expected to hear from a Nationalist prime minister. He seemed to have set his sights on reform and realized he would need new allies, hence his successful overtures to the private sector. Botha also knew that the traditional supporters of his party would be appalled at having to give up so much of white privilege. A survey showed that 60 percent of the blacks thought Botha was doing a good job as prime minister. That is how high hopes were flying.

Nearly two years have since passed, and there has been little more than reformist rhetoric, which has not yet been translated into reality. Botha has made a valiant effort to streamline government bureaucracy, but he has also been concentrating power more and more in his hands. He is increasingly seeking to bypass government, as witness his abolition of the senate and a new scheme for nominating parliamentarians. He deserves credit for the advent of the President's Council, which represents revolutionary thinking on the part of the Nationalists, in that it says other races (excluding blacks) would join whites in determining the future of South Africa, constitutional or otherwise. Having got so far, however, he greatly weakened this potentially revolutionary move by providing for a nominated rather than an elected membership.

Even after this setback, many people hoped against hope that change, real fundamental change which has to do with political power-sharing, still might happen. Others, however, were beginning to suspect that Botha was going to be hoist on the petard of Afrikaner unity, to believe that he, like all his predecessors, did not want to have the dubious honor of going down in history as the man who split the Nationalist Party and so also Afrikanerdom.

The prime minister was, for instance, humiliated by Andries Treurnicht, the archconservative leader of the Transvaal Nationalist Party, on the question of whether schoolboys of different races could play rugby together. Treurnicht declared in public, contradicting the prime minister, that it would not happen. Botha learned that if he took this momentous issue to the party caucus he would lose to Treurnicht. And so he backed down.

For various reasons, Botha decided to call an election some two years before he needed to. Perhaps he wanted his own mandate from the people. Perhaps he hoped to wipe the floor with the right wing and so be rid of it forever. And he might have done both these things had he gone boldly for a reformist platform. Unfortunately he retreated into the lager of well-tried traditional Afrikaner policies, and predictably this time he lost to both the right and the left. He was not conservative enough for the right and not reformist enough for the left (if these terms mean anything in South Africa). If he were bright, he would realize that he has been relieved of the albatross of Afrikaner unity. It no longer exists.

I have spent time on Botha because he holds the key to a peaceful future for South Africa. The indisputable point is that we who are oppressed will be free. That is not in question. The logic of history, even Afrikaner history, dictates that this is so. All that the whites can do is decide whether they want freedom to come reasonably, peacefully or through bloodshed and armed struggle. Those are the only options available.

Botha can play a decisive role by opting for a bold policy of change. Anything else will fail. He can never satisfy the right wing. So he should go all out to win the world and the rest of South Africa by opting for political power- sharing.

Unrest, in the schools and on the labor front, is endemic in our country and will continue to be so until political power-sharing becomes a reality. More and more blacks are becoming disillusioned as those of us calling for change by peaceful means have our credibility eroded by the authorities' often brutal and excessive action. Calls for peaceful change are being answered by tear gas, police dogs, bullets, detention without trial and banning orders. The authorities are growing in intransigence; belatedly Botha wants to demonstrate that he is tough and cannot be trifled with.

He is too late because he has not come to terms with the determination bordering on recklessness of black youth who openly flaunt the emblems of the outlawed African National Congress. He cannot control the militancy of black labor unions, which are going to be the power to watch.

There will be more and more police harassment, bannings and detentions, but these will not deter those who are determined to become free.

Finally, a word about foreign corporations in South Africa. Multinational corporations are not yet involved in the business of helping to destroy apartheid. They have done some good things for their employees, but all within the framework of apartheid, and really no more than what a good employer should have been doing. Ultimately their efforts are improvements and not changes. They are making apartheid more comfortable rather than dismantling it.

The international community must make up its mind whether it wants to see a peaceful resolution of the South African crisis. If it does, then let it apply pressure (diplomatic, political, but above all, economic) on the South African government to persuade it to go to the negotiating table with the authentic leaders of all sections of the South African population before it is too late. Maybe it is too late, judging from the conduct of the Reagan administration. If so, then what Mr. Vorster called the alternative too ghastly to contemplate, is upon us. But hope springs eternal.