PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA -- The path that the white-minority government and its major black opponents have chosen in their quest to create "a new South Africa" offers the best hope that a stable democracy will emerge from the ashes of apartheid, according to political scientists at a meeting here.

Having reached a deadlock in their resistance to one another, both sides will now negotiate a series of pacts that will then form the basis of a post-apartheid constitution, the scholars said.

The new charter will not be the ideal choice of either side, since it will consist of compromises. But it is precisely this quality that will give any emergent new system its best chance of being a stable democracy, according to the scholars, who studied authoritarian governments that have become democratic in recent years. If the new constitution is too loaded in favor of one interest group, it will alienate the other side and the system will lack stability, they said.

The scholars concluded that, for all of the uniqueness of South Africa's apartheid system of racial separation, which denies blacks political rights, the process of change taking place closely resembles what has happened in other societies.

"All the transitions from autocracy that have occurred since 1974 . . . are part of the same process," said Philippe C. Schmitter of Stanford University. Schmitter developed this theory of political transition in a study of 29 societies that have moved from autocracy to democracy since 1974, including Portugal, Spain, Greece, Brazil and Eastern Europe.

"There is a kind of contagion in an increasingly interdependent world system," he said. "What happens in one country affects others, especially in the same region."

Thus, Schmitter said, the 1972 Portuguese revolution had a strong influence on the transition in Spain, which in turn influenced changes in Latin America; the liberalization of the Soviet system prompted Poland's lunge for democracy, setting off a chain reaction in other East European countries.

According to Schmitter, it was Moscow's changed attitude toward regional conflicts that made possible South Africa's negotiated withdrawal from Angola and Namibia, which in turn influenced the Pretoria government's decision to attempt a negotiated settlement of its internal conflict.

Schmitter and Andre du Toit, a South African political scientist, were keynote speakers at a conference here late last month that brought together key political analysts in an attempt to better understand the changes taking place in this country.

In February, President Frederik W. de Klerk legalized South Africa's main black nationalist movement, the African National Congress, and freed its leader, Nelson Mandela. The two sides are now preparing to negotiate a constitution for "a new South Africa," as de Klerk has called it, in which blacks are expected to play a greater role in a new system of government. The events have left both black and white South Africans breathless and bewildered.

"There are no guarantees about the outcome" of negotiations, one of the scholars warned. What faces South Africa is a complex, uncertain process with no fixed rules. The process could be reversed, stagnate short of democracy, or emerge as an authoritarian system of another sort, he said.

According to Schmitter's theory, the transition processes of nations are similar, but each society has distinctive features that affect the kind of social system that emerges.

These differences fall into four categories, Schmitter said: transitions imposed from above by a controlling elite that feels the need to liberalize; reform forced upon a government by pressure from below, as in Poland; revolution brought about by mass mobilization; and a negotiated transition in which a government and its opponents, having reached a deadlock, negotiate a series of pacts by which they agree on the ground rules for future contestation.

Schmitter said that, according to case studies, the pact-forming process offers the best hope of a stable democracy, and revolution the worst.

Where does South Africa fall in this?

Du Toit, a University of Cape Town political scientist who has applied Schmitter's theory to South Africa, said this country has followed fairly closely a typical course toward change by pact-forming.

Such a process, he noted, typically starts within the ruling group as divisions arise between hard-liners and moderates, or "soft-liners," as he called them. This happened in the ruling National Party in the mid-1970s.

The moderates, troubled by the economic or international consequences of the country's repressive system, begin to urge modest reforms, arguing that the government is strong enough not to be threatened by a limited and controlled extension of rights.

Resistance politics begins to revive with reforms, and as it does, elements within the oppressed society discover their common purpose and unite. Du Toit said South Africa entered this phase when then-President Pieter W. Botha's tentative reforms of the mid-1980s brought together more than 1,000 anti-apartheid organizations in the United Democratic Front, which spearheaded the most prolonged and intensive campaign of political resistance in the country's history.

But the popular upsurge cannot be sustained -- "sooner or later, it recedes and there is a clampdown by the security forces" -- du Toit told the conference, alluding to the state of emergency ordered by Botha in 1986 and allowed to lapse last month by de Klerk. "The popular upsurge is ephemeral, but its function is to push the process further than it would otherwise have gone."

This creates the stalemate out of which the pact-forming process begins. "The soft-liners realize they are no longer in control of the process, that they have an interest in letting the process continue, but that they need to come to a negotiated understanding with the forces of opposition and resistance," du Toit said.

"The leadership of the resistance also realize that they cannot take over power," he said. "They cannot overthrow the state, and they have to come to an understanding with the soft-liners in the regime.

"Thus, we find the African National Congress now entering into talks about talks with the de Klerk government."

The agreements negotiated among the major players in this process, redefine the rules of the game on the basis of mutual guarantees that protect each side's vital interests, Schmitter told the conference.

These pacts set the ground rules for how political, military, social and economic issues will be handled after the transition, he said, and are usually intended to be temporary. But often, he said, they are extended and sometimes built into the future constitution.

"They are essentially undemocratic, negotiated between leadership elites, often in secret, but their purpose is to achieve a democratic outcome," Schmitter said.

Finally, he said, the agreements reached in this pact-forming process should be ratified at some kind of national convention and institutionalized through a founding election.

In du Toit's opinion, South Africa is now "somewhere between pact-forming by leadership groups and the normalization of politics with all parties openly organizing and competing for electoral support."