The temptation is to think of South Africa's racial problem in terms of the two major protagonists, blacks and whites. The temptation grows stronger with more and more young Colored (mixed race) South Africans disdaining their official designation in favor of the more militant-sounding "black."

But where, politically, is the country's other minority, the ethnic Indian?

In a word: everywhere.

In Durban, where Indians are the predominant group, you can find outright hostility to the country's black majority (although there seems to be special affection for American blacks). Durban was the site of recent clashes between blacks and Indian merchants.

Johannesburg Indians, who tend to feel a bit superior to their Durban brothers, are not so much hostile as apprehensive. One young Indian shopkeeper, whose business is registered in the name of a white man because it operates -- illegally -- in a "white" suburb, will tell you that he understands and sympathizes with the demands of the subjugated blacks.

But ask this young man (who fears even to let his name be used) what will happen to him when blacks, as he clearly expects, gain political ascendancy. "Speaking very frankly," he will say, "I won't have a place in this country. I think the best solution is for the Nationalists to keep on ruling, but with major concessions to blacks, particularly in the area of education."

And then there is Yussuf Surtee.

We have left his swank haberdashery and taken refuge in his club, which, like his shop, is in the ultramodern Carlton Center in downtown Johannesburg.

"In the beginning," he says, "there will be a tremendous ethnic fight between the Zulu and the Xhosa (South Africa's dominant tribes). But that won't last, because you see there are also Asians and Coloreds. What are they going to fight for? I'll tell you. They will fight for a party. It is in the context of a political party that we will have a role to play."

Surtee, whose string of four men's shops may be the best stocked -- and most expensive -- in southern Africa, is confident he'll have a role. He is close to South Africa's top leaders, partly because they trust his judgment and his integrity, and partly, he admits, because he gives "quite a bit of money" to their cause.

While the nameless young shopkeeper is fearful of losing his business if the government learns about him, Surtee, as brash as he is successful, couldn't hide if he wanted to. His Carlton Center store is illegal, being in the white-only Central Business District, and so is his home. "I have told the government I will not apply for a permit (to be in the CBD). Let them throw me out."

Why is this man, who comes close to enjoying all the privileges of any white man in the land, so committed to the struggle for black rights?

"We could have the greatest country," he explains. "We have the mineral resources, the major business corporations, we have so much, but all of this will only come right if everybody is able to share in it."

But isn't that what virtually everyone here is saying these days? Even conservatives are speaking of the necessity for change, and business leaders such as Harry Oppenheimer, retired head of the mammoth Anglo American Corp., has been saying such things for years.

Surtee bristles at the thought. "Harry Oppenheimer is spokesman for P. W. Botha," he charges. "He has never said, 'Let's scrap influx control, let's scrap the pass law, let's scrap the entire apartheid system.' He calls for more foreign investment as the way to help blacks.

"I don't believe in disinvestment, but now I'm beginning to believe in disinvestment. It is hurting these people and making them think. U.S. companies are giving significant amounts of money to the struggle for the first time because of the threat of disinvestment.

"Nothing is going to happen until all the (political) prisoners are released, the exiles come home, and everybody sits down at a table to discuss our future."

And what would bring that about?

"International pressure," Surtee says. "We must keep on pushing the U.S. We want American blacks to keep on pushing. People like Randall Robinson mean so much to us here."

He won't guess what the shape of a negotiated settlement will be, but he knows that it is necessary, and he knows, too, who must be at the table: the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ismail Kathrata (an Indian); Bishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Alan Boesak (Colored), Beyers Naud,e, the exiled Oliver Tambo, head of the banned African National Congress, and the heads of the newly militant labor organizations. "That would give you a cross section of people, not just blacks, and it would be chaired by the South African government. Things could be worked out that way."

What about Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi?

"Put his name on the list, too, but then you've got a conflict right away," says Surtee, reflecting an astonishingly widely held view.

It is time, Surtee believes, to go all the way, rather than merely adjusting the edges of apartheid. "That's why I resigned from the Sullivan principles group. Every time Leon Sullivan comes to South Africa, (American business executives) take their Bibles off the top shelf and say these are the principles we are practicing. We have open canteens, we pay equal wages, and so forth. Sure, just for a week to show the world? How many blacks do they employ, besides tokenism? We don't want fringe benefits anymore. We want to share. We want to have a share in the struggle."

But what of the young Indian who fears that he will not have a place in the new order whose advent consumes so much of Surtee's resources?

"He's living in a fool's paradise," Surtee asserts. "He hasn't got a place right now."