Just (yes, "just") 125 years ago the United States began solving a racial problem significantly less difficult than the one afflicting South Africa. The process began with four years of civil war and was followed by a century of intermittent litigation and legislation. All this was needed to open American society to a racial minority that was regionally concentrated.

Writing in The Public Interest, Glenn C. Loury notes that "in little more than a generation we have advanced from a circumstance in which the great majority of Americans were indifferent or actively hostile to blacks' quest for full citizenship rights, to one in which racial equality of opportunity is a value staunchly upheld by the law and universally embraced in our politics." Now, what of the prospects for change in South Africa?

John Buchan, in his magnificent autobiography, "Pilgrim's Way," published in 1940, recalled serving as an aide to Lord Milner in South Africa in the first decade of the century. When read today, this passage leaps off the page: "The hope of breaking down the racial barrier between town and country was always very near to Milner's heart. He wanted to see the Dutch share in the urban industries and men of British stock farming beside the Boers in the veldt." South Africa's blacks were invisible then.

Today they are omnipresent in the global circuitry of journalism. A crucial fact about South Africa's turmoil is its presence in American living rooms.

South Africa is far from being an open society, but so, too, is it far from being as closed as any communist society or many African despotisms. Bishop Tutu holds press conferences; he regales white students with witty and withering ridicule of government policy. South Africa is an opening society. Changes in laws touching matters as varied and vital as trade unions, interracial sex and marriage cannot be dismissed as cosmetic.

There are two certainties about South African change: it is coming; it will occur behind a fusillade of bluster designed to deny foreign critics the satisfaction of thinking they are forcing any change.

On a planet where narrow creeks can create canyons and even the continents drift, nothing lasts, least of all social arrangements. But it is said there are three lost tribes in today's world -- the Protestants in Ulster, the Israelis in the Middle East and the white (especially Dutch) South Africans. These three groups are not going to go home. They are home. As Chief Buthelezi, leader of the Zulus, says, South Africa may avoid the calamity that has befallen so much of postcolonial Africa (one man, one vote -- once) because blacks and whites are "a community of Africans. . . . The whites have become indigenous and the interdpendence between blacks and whites doesn't exist anywhere else in Africa."

South Africa's foreign minister says, tendentiously, "There is no clear-cut majority" in South Africa because there is no "homogeneous" black majority. There are, he says, "differences of opinion" among blacks. Well, do tell. Imagine: blacks do not all think alike. Next thing you know, they won't all look alike. There certainly is a clear-cut minority: it is white and it, too, is not homogeneous.

Buthelezi says the minimal demand is for the government to acknowledge "that we are one people in one country." The government is closer to doing that than even it may realize. Its ambassador in Washington says the government is committed to a process of change that should end in a federal structure with whites not in a privileged position in the central government.

Whether or not the people in Pretoria actually feel so committed, the crucial point in President Botha's otherwise barren speech last week was the offer to negotiate with blacks. Negotiation presupposes human beings on both sides of the table. It is too late for a South African "Dred Scott decision." In Amerthe short fuse to war by declaring a constitutional principle that blacks could not be complete citizens and hence, inferentially, were not completely human.

To pass from authoritarianism to popular government without falling into anarchy and more authoritarianism is difficult. King Juan Carlos of Spain deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his indispensable role in making Spain the only European nation to move from fascism to democracy without being conquered. The problem in Spain -- a relatively homogeneous nation with a majority in favor of the change -- was less demanding than South Africa's problem.

Foreign critics are demanding that South Africa's regime dismount from a tiger. Perhaps the regime is to blame for being on the tiger. Perhaps the tiger is angry only because it has been ridden so long, so recklessly. Perhaps. But critics should consider this: telling a rider of a tiger that he deserves to be devoured is no way to persuade him to dismount.