WHEN South Africa's policy of apartheid ends, as it must one day, what will take its place? There is a consensus that some form of political power-sharing must accompany the change. But there is no agreement yet on its form. And there is widespread concern that the increasing militancy of black youths and the apparent retreat by Pretoria from earlier cautious reforms to a more hard-line policy are lessening prospects for a negotiated solution. South African President Pieter W. Botha speaks frequently these days of the need for ``evolutionary'' change. He says there can be no discussions on sharing political power with blacks who will not renounce violence, a comment aimed largely at the exiled African National Congress (ANC) and its imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela. Mr. Botha insists he will not be pushed into such negotiations -- ``I'm nobody's jellyfish'' -- and that white minority rights must be protected.
Most South African blacks insist that the one-man, one-vote concept is the only fair way to go. Many blacks suspect that some of Pretoria's proposals for talks and involvement would only delay that day and force them into compromises they cannot afford to accept. Even Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi, for instance, widely regarded by whites as the most conciliatory of the nation's major black leaders, terms the freeing of Mr. Mandela and other political prisoners a condition for talks with Pretoria of any kind.
South Africa's resistence to that bid is the key reason neither Mr. Buthelezi nor any credible black leader is willing to take part in the government's proposed national council of black representatives to advise the government on race-reform legislation and a formula for political power-sharing. Pretoria's plan has been to get moderate black leaders to suggest constitutional reforms that white voters would then consider in a referendum.
There are many reasons that black South Africans are particularly suspicious of conciliatory moves by Pretoria which often appear so reasonable to others looking on. In recent months South Africa's government has imposed a tight state of emergency, arresting thousands of citizens in the process, and, in an appeal to its right flank, appears to have beat a retreat from some of its cautious earlier reforms. It is now clear that Mr. Botha is standing firm for the continued existence of both segregated schools and independent tribal homelands, which continue to separate blacks from the real source of power in their country.
A variety of structures for governmental change have been suggested. The Progressive Federal Party, the white liberal minority party which endorses the one-man, one-vote concept, proposes, for instance, a confederation instead of the current highly centralized structure. Most blacks would prefer that to the present system with its white political dominance. But most blacks want to change the balance of power rather than the form of government. The ANC's insistence on a unitary state is widely supported.
Mr. Botha often points to the numerous tribal and language divisions among the nation's blacks and to increasing black-on-black violence as reasons that blacks cannot be regarded as one community. It is a fair point. But none of South Africa's blacks can vote in nationwide elections, and all share the indignities of living under a system of legalized racial segregation.
The one-man, one-vote must be endorsed as a long-range goal even if Pretoria has qualms about its wisdom and practicality over the short run. It is conceivable that if the basic concept were firmly endorsed by Pretoria, some kind of interim structural compromise might be possible.
It is true that several members of the ANC executive committee are members of South Africa's Communist Party. And some of them see the introduction of a socialist or Marxist economy as a necessary part of any real end to apartheid. But Communists do not dominate the ANC. It represents too large a group for Pretoria to continue to ignore. In an effort to help Pretoria on the road to negotiation, the Commonwealth's Eminent Persons Group some months back urged the government to free Mr. Mandela and negotiate with the ANC. Both are reasonable steps that could end the current stalemate. Recent meetings in London between ANC leader Oliver Tambo and high-level US and British officials add a further endorsement.
It is vital to find some areas of agreement so the dialogue may begin.