JOHANNESBURG, JUNE 14 -- It was a genteel demonstration in a country accustomed to stormy protests: About four dozen people, some dressed in business suits, stood quietly for an hour outside a suburban high school here one morning this week to protest a government decision to close it. Then they climbed in their cars and drove to work.

But the orderly little demonstration went to the heart of one of the most tempestuous issues facing South Africa. As President Frederik W. de Klerk seeks to reform apartheid, the system of racial separation, without upsetting white racists too much, he is trying to retain as much of the country's segregated school system as he can in a society that already is becoming partly integrated.

A welter of protests is coming from all sides, with white conservatives accusing the government of plotting covert integration and blacks voicing their disillusionment at the continuation of segregation and inequality despite de Klerk's reformist talk.

The protest in the suburb of Homestead Park was just one of many this week. In that case, white and non-white parents joined forces to protest a government decision to close the neighborhood high school rather than open it to all races in a residential area that has become integrated.

At the same time, 10 black parents staged a sit-in and hunger strike at the Education Department's headquarters in Johannesburg to protest inferior standards in the black schools. In addition, 2,000 mixed-race or Colored teachers in Transvaal province entered the second week of a "chalk down" strike against poor pay and working conditions in their schools.

Meanwhile, the major white teachers' organization, the Teachers' Federal Council, severed relations with the Education Department, accusing it of plotting integration behind the council's back. The council's action prompted a breakaway by three affiliated bodies that disagree with its position.

Black schools, in turmoil for years as a result of township unrest, are now in open revolt against an education system that students believe remains segregated and unequal to keep them inferior.

Despite upgrading the schools, the government still spends five times as much on every white school child as every black one. Only 4 percent of black teachers have a university degree compared with 38 percent of white teachers. Black schools are shabby and overcrowded compared with white schools, and there is a serious shortage of desks, books and other basic equipment.

All this was reflected in a 42 percent pass rate among blacks in the high school certificate examinations last year compared with 95 percent among white students.

Last week, rebellious Soweto students ordered their headmasters to stay home until the Education Department supplied the state schools with enough books and desks. They said only one in five students had textbooks. In black townships east of Johannesburg, 15,000 students and teachers staged a protest march June 5 to the office of the regional director of education.

Opposition critics blame the chaos overtaking the education system on the ambivalence of the government's reform program. Although the de Klerk administration talks of abandoning apartheid and is allowing some of the segregationist laws and practices to fall away, it clings to others and lets some be bent but not scrapped.

Thus, the government allowed blacks to enter expensive hotels and restaurants several years ago but only last month dropped the color bar in hospitals, which were regarded as racially more sensitive.

A bill was introduced in parliament this week to scrap the law that segregates public amenities such as parks and public swimming pools, but the Group Areas Act which demarcates separate living areas for the different races will remain untouched for another year at least.

However, the government is bending the group act by turning a blind eye to blacks who move into lower-income white suburbs to escape overcrowded townships.

Schools, regarded as the most racially sensitive area of all, are at the bottom of the government's reform list. It has allowed private schools to integrate but insists that state schools remain segregated.

This insistence, combined with the easing of restrictions on housing, has resulted in a racial imbalance between some neighborhoods and the state schools that serve them. While the neighborhoods have integrated, the schools have not. As the white population in these neighborhoods has shrunk, the schools have emptied. But black children living in the neighborhoods cannot use the schools because they are for whites only. These black children have to be bused to other schools in distant black areas.

Forty-two white schools in Johannesburg face closure because there are not enough children to fill their classrooms, while 15 miles away, 3,000 black students were turned away from Soweto schools this year because there was no space for them.

Countrywide, according to researchers at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University, more than 200 white schools have been closed in the last 10 years while the shortage of black schools is keeping an estimated 3.5 million children out of school -- more than the total white school enrollment.

In an attempt to check this anomaly, the government last March proposed two possible formulas for opening white schools to other races in neighborhoods that are becoming integrated.

One is to allow private organizations to buy or lease white state schools from the Education Department and apply for a government subsidy to help run them. As private schools, they would be allowed to take in black students. However, educators warn that operating costs would require tuition fees too high for most of the integrated neighborhoods.

Under the second formula, the government could agree to integrate a state school if 90 percent of the parents agree. But the minister of white education and culture, Piet Clase, has stipulated that "the character and ethos of the school must not change." This seems to suggest that he has in mind only token black enrollment.

Neither formula is in operation yet. Clase asked educational organizations to submit comments to him by June 15, after which he will make a decision. Meanwhile, he assured a meeting of conservative Afrikaner headmasters in Pretoria June 4 that the proposals are intended to permit only limited deviations from basic policy. Clase told the headmasters they need not fear that the government is undermining the "own affairs" principle in education -- the constitutional requirement that each of the country's four population groups -- the whites, Coloreds, Indians and blacks -- be responsible for handling many of their own affairs, such as education.

The case of Homestead Park indicates just how limited the deviations will be.

Homestead Park, which was an all-white suburb two years ago, now has a population that is 70 percent black, and enrollment at the local white school -- called Western High -- has fallen from nearly 500 to 138.

Teachers are allocated according to enrollment, which means Western High now qualifies for only 14 -- not enough to cover all the subjects required for graduation. So the government announced that the school will be closed at the end of the year and its spacious premises put up for sale.

Homestead Park's non-white parents, meanwhile, have to bus their children to overcrowded Indian and Colored schools in areas far away.

"It's crazy," said Ismael Munshi, an Indian dentist who moved into Homestead Park last year. "I have to look at these empty classrooms across the road from where I live, while my two children go to a school in Fordsburg {five miles away} that was built for 500 pupils but has 700. The conditions there are terrible. The classrooms are overcrowded. There is no space for a playground, and part of the building has been condemned."

Homestead Park's remaining whites are also unhappy because they too will have to bus their children to more distant schools when Western High closes.

White and Colored parents met in March and agreed to appeal to Clase to apply his parents' approval formula and allow the school to integrate. Fifty-four parents voted in favor of integration and two against -- well above the 90 percent requirement.

But Clase refused their request. He gave no reasons, but educators believe it is because the school would have a minority of whites and so its "character and ethos" would change.