The Financial Mail has named Gatsha Buthelezi its "Man of the Year," an honor that will come as no surprise to the Rev. Allan Boesak. He had virtually predicted it in an interview some days earlier.

We were talking about resistance by whites, both in South Africa and the West, to the idea of real democracy here. Boesak said he expected whites would attempt to "do a sort of Lancaster House deal" (the arrangement whereby whites in Zimbabwe were given a reserve of parliamentary seats for which blacks cannot compete). Then:

"I am even convinced that, at this moment, they have already chosen their black leader who, when the moment arrives, they will try to foist off upon us. I'm thinking of Gatsha Buthelezi, who seems to have been chosen by them in spite of the fact that it is very clear that in this country he has neither the support nor the respect of black people.

"And yet, over the past year or so, the liberal element in this country, business people, have gone to extraordinary lengths to make us understand how important and even how indispensable Gatsha Buthelezi is for the future of this country."

Whites, I am sure, do not think of themselves as manipulative so much as grateful for the "reasonableness" of a man like Buthelezi, chief of some 5.5 million Zulus. Many of them would endorse this assessment by the Financial Mail: "Increasingly in a land where there is much to despair about and little that gives rise to hope, Buthelezi . . . holds out the prospect of an accommodation being struck between South Africa's different race groups.

"In enunciating the politics of compromise, he carries with him the hope of much of white South Africa and certainly that of a sizeable group of moderate blacks and other people of color."

That is one view. There is another that I heard from nonwhites from one end of this country to the other. For the sake of perspective, I should make clear that I did not visit the rural areas of Natal, where Buthelezi has his largest and most loyal following. I should note, too, that while I did not see Chief Buthelezi during this trip, in our previous conversations he has come across as a proud man who, while out of step with the rest of the black leadership here, takes a position because he believes it to be in the interest of his people, not because he is under orders from the government.

Still, it must be said that it is increasingly difficult to find blacks here who support this once- popular chief. The Rev. Smangaliso Mkatshwa, Pretoria-based secretary of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, describes Buthelezi as "a leader that is wasted."

The reference, he says, is to the fact that the chief, who made blacks feel proud when he toyed with the white-run government over its proffer of a homeland, never quite saying yes, never clearly saying no, has not grown beyond the status of tribal leader.

"If you look at all the major liberation movements, you will find that they cut across tribal lines," says the Rev. Mkatshwa, who, like Buthelezi, is a Zulu.

But even if only as leader of the country's biggest tribe, shouldn't Buthelezi have a virtually automatic seat at the anticipated negotiations? Mkatshwa hesitates, then says: "Let's put it this way. I want to be very fair. I would like to see to see Gatsha Buthelezi resign immediately and unconditionally from bantustan politics and join all truly progressive organizations in the struggle. It is only after that that I personally would like to see him take an active part in the negotiations."

I heard similar ideas from Asians in Johannesburg, blacks in Soweto and from my hotel maid, a Zulu from Natal. The consensus seems to be that at some point Buthelezi stopped toying with whites and started playing footsie with them.

But even if he has fallen from grace, doesn't the controversial chief present something of a dilemma for the black leadership? If he is rejected by them as part of the negotiating process, it may come across as a slap in the face to millions of Zulus. If he is a part of the negotiations, he may seriously complicate matters, since he is so much out of step with the leadership on so many key issues. Would Boesak accept that assessment?

"It is only a dilemma," he says, "if you take narrow ethno-nationalism seriously, which is the only basis upon which Buthelezi works. He is a chief of the Zulus, a platform provided him by the government through the creation of the homeland of KwaZulu, at a time when black people are moving away from ethnicity.

"At a time when all of us are taking more and more risks to challenge the government, he is still getting his money from the government and finds himself on the wrong side of every single issue: on the issue of disinvestment, on the issue of how confrontation with the government is to be conducted, on the issue of recognizing the central role of the African National Congress, on all these important issues, he is on the other side. He is a pro-capitalist, pro-Western African chief, and black people are no longer interested."

That is harshly put, but surprisingly close to what black people here seem to feel. In the view of the Financial Mail, Buthelezi "occupies what remains of the middle ground in South Africa.'' In the view of blacks, he is merely standing in the way.