While the world's eyes are on the Falklands crisis in the western South Atlantic, a significant political move is being made in South Africa, on the eastern shore of the South Atlantic.
The political move calls for ''power-sharing'' between the South Africa's current white-minority government and its Colored (mixed racial descent) and Indian populations.
The Falklands dispute and South Africa's power-sharing proposal and race tensions are not directly or immediately connected. But if the Falklands crisis were to get out of hand and the American and Soviet superpowers became involved in confrontation in the South Atlantic, South Africa's strategic importance and political stability could become of even greater concern to the US than they are at present.
The South African naval base at Simonstown, once a key outpost for the British, might then assume a correspondingly tempting role for the US Navy.
The immediate question is whether the power-sharing initiative of the South African government, represented as a bid to ease at the political level the country's harsh system of apartheid (enforced racial segregation), will in fact do that. Or will it increase internal tensions and the threat to political stability?
Doubt arises about the government's intention with its proposal, unveiled last week, because for all its apparent concessions the plan is consistent with the white Afrikaner minority's oft-asserted aim of never letting itself be swamped by the black majority.
There is not a single concession in the plan to blacks. The plan would ease political exclusion of only Colored and Asian minorities. These groups number 2. 5 and 1 million, or slightly less, respectively. Blacks number nearly 20 million. The white population is 4.5 million, of whom 60 percent are Afrikaans -- and 40 percent English-speaking.
The plan, produced by Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's think tank, would establish an executive (rather than a figure-head) president in South Africa with powers to appoint Colored and Asian ministers to his Cabinet. Neither he nor the nonwhite ministers would be responsible to the white -- and Afrikaner-dominated -- Parliament.
Ever since the Afrikaner National Party community became the dominant force in South African politics in the 1948 general election, Afrikaner policy has been to increase racial discrimination against Coloreds and Asians, thus driving them closer to the black majority.
Mr. Botha's new plan is clearly intended to reverse this trend by wooing Coloreds and Asians away from blacks and toward the whites. The prime minister's liberal critics say he is pursuing the age-old policy of divide-and-rule.
Whatever Mr. Botha's intent, his initiative poses a dilemma for the Coloreds and Asians: Should they break with the blacks and accept the concessions offered , thereby prejudicing their position if blacks one day gain political control of the nation?
Or should they stoically reject the concessions and accept continuation of the harsh discrimination to ensure fairer treatment for themselves when (or if) political power passes one day into black hands?
There is a parallel dilemma for the relatively liberal white opposition Progressive Federal Party in Parliament. (This is the party led by Frederick van Zyl Slabbert but better known outside South Africa as the party of the redoutable Helen Suzman.)
Should they go along with the proposed change favoring only Coloreds and Asians in the hope that it will prove the thin end of the wedge for an opening up of South African politics to the black majority? Or should they try to preserve some standing with that black majority by opposing the constitutional amendments as being so limited in their effect as to be meaningless?
Understandably, the proposed changes are rejected out of hand by blacks -- except for the handful who cooperate with the government in setting up black homelands or Bantustans. Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, leader of the country's biggest black ethnic group, the Zulus, is among those who have spoken out against the new plan.
The government justifies its complete exclusion of blacks from politics in the Republic of South Africa by arguing that they have their own political outlet in the homelands. Where homelands have already formally been established, a linguistic -- or ethnic-group member is considered by the government a citizen of that homeland, not of the republic. This reinforces the disenfranchisement of blacks in the republic, where no nonwhites currently have the vote.
The vast majority of blacks is opposed to the homelands policy. Blacks insist that they have an even greater stake in and right to the Republic of South Africa as a whole than have whites. Hence their aim is to vote as citizens of the republic alongside whites.
But Afrikaner nationalists know that granting blacks the vote on a one-man one-vote with whites in the republic would inevitably mean surrendering political power to blacks. It is hard to conceive of Afrikaners doing this because of their belief that it would mean cultural and political suicide.
Hard-line white opposition to Mr. Botha from the South African right could pose a bigger threat to his leadership of Afrikanerdom than would the combined forces on his left of the Progressive Federal Party, Coloreds, Asians and blacks -- if that is the way they eventually line up.