SOUTH AFRICA's municipal elections seem to have left things pretty much as they found them. The substantial black turnout hoped for by the government didn't materialize, which casts doubts on the feasibility of the Nationalist Party's plans to share political power with blacks while maintaining white dominance. Black turnout nationally was about 14 percent. But that is out of only 1.4 million blacks registered to vote in the districts where elections were held; the country has 26 million blacks overall. About 11 percent of voters in the huge Soweto township outside Johannesburg cast a vote, while in some small rural townships nearly 80 percent did.
The government, however, had launched a massive campaign to turn out the vote. Animated TV ads sang the praises of voting, and a system of ``prior voting'' allowed polls to be open a number of days before last Wednesday's actual election date. Anything less than a clear increase over the 21 percent participation at the first round of municipal elections, held back in 1983, has to bring gloom to President Pieter Botha and his cohorts.
Working against the government's efforts to encourage voting was a boycott called by anti-apartheid forces - which appears to have had an impact even though many leaders of the movement have been detained without trial. The boycotters contended that these racially segregated elections were a divergence from democracy, not a path toward it.
The government, on the other hand, was arguing for the democratic nature of the balloting even as it took undemocratic steps - such as detention and press censorship - to shape the outcome.
Mr. Botha may try to attribute low turnout more to apathy than to the words of activists. But blacks generally seemed to be saying that the local councils so crucial to government power-sharing plans have done little for either their daily lives or their political aspirations.
The elections were very important to the other side of Botha's dilemma - the far-right Conservative Party, which wants a return to undiluted apartheid and attacks the current regime for heading leftward. The Conservatives didn't do quite as well as some expected, losing in Pretoria and Johannesburg. But they nearly swept the rural and industrial towns of the Transvaal, South Africa's most populous and economically important province.
That gives the Conservatives a running start toward expected parliamentary elections next year.
Perhaps more important, it gives them a chance to prevent tax revenues generated in prosperous white areas from going to services needed in black areas. That kind of wealth-sharing has been crucial to giving revenue-starved black municipal councils the means to help their constituents.
Little has occurred, therefore, to inspire confidence that the government's strategy of blending tight security with gradual reform will, in the end, work. Anything it does to appeal to blacks further arouses pro-apartheid whites. It may be time for the men in Pretoria to decide that the future lies unequivocally with genuine political participation by the majority of South Africans and take steps - such as freeing black leader Nelson Mandela and ending all race laws - that prove its commitment to reform.