Cambridge, Mass. — ''First, one must understand that all-out black revolution is not going to occur,'' says Robert Conway, with crisp, dry, deep-toned words that bespeak a native of South Africa. ''Basically, they haven't got the means to overthrow the South African government militarily - it's too strong.''
Depending on your politics, those words are either anathema or reassuring. To groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) which preach armed revolt as a means of ending apartheid (forced racial separation) in South Africa, they are anathema; they are reassuring to South African whites comfortable with the status quo. But Mr. Conway is foreign to both views: He advocates change, peaceful change, and he sees a clear road toward it.
Conway, a well-built man with sandy blond hair, sun-bronzed face, and boyish smile, sits in an office high up in the Harvard Law School. ''For a long time I've been most dissatisfied with the sense of everybody saying, 'It's either the blacks or it's the whites,' and that if the blacks come to power, it must be through revolution. I'm convinced either solution is not in the interests of all the people.''
Instead, Conway watches South Africa's economy: ''What's happening is, the more the economy grows, the more you are dependent on the black.'' With blacks in better jobs, he says, they are building a middle class that is gaining economic, and eventually, political power. Together, blacks and whites would chart the country's political future in a pluralistic, one-man-one-vote system, he says.
Conway speaks from experience - and his accomplishments are little short of remarkable. He has earned three advanced degrees: in economics, law, and international relations. He was also a university lecturer in law and economics and the managing director of a large property development firm - all before age 27.
Two years ago he left his position as a top executive of a $400 million South African company and announced his candidacy for Parliament. As a member of the official opposition in South Africa, the Progressive Federal Party, his chances of beating his opponent - the longest-standing member of Parliament for the ruling National Party - were indeed slim. After a breakneck campaign, he narrowly lost.
In January he was awarded a fellowship to Harvard University, sponsored jointly by the Center for International Affairs and the Law School. Much of his time is spent at the Harvard Negotiation Project. The project, founded by negotiation expert Roger Fisher, specializes in conflict resolution.
Conway has a different and equally demanding challenge: Find new ways to bridge the enormous gap between black demands for power and white convictions that these demands never be met. When he returns to his homeland this winter, he will stand for election again. Going with him will be a political philosophy that is as unusual as it is hopeful.
* Conway is convinced, despite recent guerrilla attacks in South Africa, that full-scale revolution will never occur. ''The South African military apparatus is the most powerful in Africa, and its capability is comparable with the Israeli Army,'' he says. ''The government could mobilize up to half a million men if needed.'' He quotes a 1981 Hoover Institute study entitled ''Why South Africa Will Survive,'' which concludes, he reads, ''Given the present condition of the armed forces in South Africa, a revolution from within or invasion from without belongs to the realm of military fantasy.''
Even if 10 million or more blacks were politicized to the point of fighting, he says, ''they have to be armed.''
But munitions, he explains, would have to come through the countries surrounding South Africa - Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, Botswana - the so-called ''frontline states.'' These countries have their own problems: ''They can't even feed or totally defend themselves,'' Conway points out. The South African Army could easily contain pockets of resistance. The guerrillas that so vexed Americans in Vietnam had a ready supply of arms, and thick jungles to hide in. A guerrilla force would find neither on the open grasslands, or veld, of South Africa, he says.
''I don't discount the possibility of some violence,'' Conway adds, ''mostly in the form of urban guerrilla warfare similar to the experiences of Northern Ireland.'' The car bombing of the South African Air Force headquarters in May is one example. ''As a result of this violence,'' he says, ''there will be severe retaliation by the government inside South Africa and the neighboring black states.''
To minimize and eventually eradicate this situation, Conway maintains that a process of nonviolent change - which he claims is already occurring - must be nurtured and publicized. There have been many attempts to push or pull South African whites and blacks together; Conway sees them being drawn together by the economy.
The economy is the prime vehicle for change. He says that ''with more blacks in better jobs, they are gaining economic power. Urban black income in the last two years increased substantially, rising 17 percent against 9 percent for whites,'' though blacks are still far from parity with whites. ''And blacks, by the year 2000,'' he continues, ''will have 70 percent of the country's disposable income, from 40 percent today.''
Conway says that with increasing economic power, blacks are demanding - and getting - more rights.
''The trade-union movement is a good example of black power. The Chamber of Mines, them most powerful private group in South Africa, has recently recognized nonregistered trade unions and the government has been forced to accept this. In addition, job reservation [a system that allowed only whites into top-level jobs ], once pervasive throughout South Africa, only remains in two categories, mining and some municipal services, and is being phased out.''
The most crucial element to these changes, says Conway, is that they foster ''real one-on-one contact'' between black and white. He says they address one of the fundamental cultural attitudes of many white South Africans - that blacks are inferior. More contact and working together as equals ''breaks down these attitudes.''
''Real one-on-one contact'' with blacks was rare for Conway when he was growing up. When he went to the European business school in Paris in 1979, he had one of his first unhindered friendships with a black. ''One of the chaps in the course was a guy from Nigeria. And I remember the rest of the group thinking there was no way you must let these two come into contact too closely.'' A grin begins to inch across Conway's face. ''And then one night they'd all gone out,'' and the two were left alone. ''I said, 'OK, let's talk now.' '' He rolls with laughter, remembering the tension of the moment.
''We became, of that group, the closest friends. The joke of the whole program was that here you've got a South African and a Nigerian, supposedly archenemies, being the best of friends. . . .''
''It just reinforced everything that I thought was really relevant to the South African situation. It sounds trite, but you've got to start by correcting white perceptions, in fact, so they realize that black people are also human beings - they're capable of every emotional feeling that you have.''
''And it's happening,'' Conway emphasizes. ''As more blacks are integrated into the economy, acquire more responsibilty, they gain more rights and more social contact, thus breaking down white fears.''
But such changes are not being welcomed with open arms. He explains: ''There's police brutality, arrests, banning - all those things highlighted in the press. But South Africa can't change this process. The black man becoming more a part of society is unalterable, and it would be better for the government to accept this.''
Conway says one result of this process of change has been Prime Minister Pieter Botha's proposed plan to give Coloreds (people of mixed-race descent) and Indians political representation. ''The effect of this is going to be that these groups will use this position as a power base to extract more rights and greater political participation.''
He admits the reform plan doesn't solve South Africa's problems. ''How can it , when it excludes the blacks? The point is that it's a reaction to a set of circumstances, it has raised expectations throughout the country, and is going to be a platform to promote more change.'' Eventually, he says, the government will have to negotiate with the blacks.
Conway sees his role as helping this process of change. He is a man on a tightrope, trying to walk the thin wire of conciliation between the Nationalist Party and its policy of apartheid on the right and the violent factions of black political dissent on the left.
He has some unique proposals for facilitating this change; many of them ask the help of the United States.
For one, Conway wants to encourage American businesses to invest and build
in South Africa. He fiercely opposes the divestiture movement, popular on US college campuses, that seeks to force American companies out of South Africa.
''You want more and more American contact, because Americans are a force for promoting change.'' When US companies abide by the Sullivan principles (a code devised to help US multinationals operating in South Africa promote equal opportunity there), and ''when they take the lead, as they have, in promoting blacks to executive positions, this creates a change of its own. South African companies then have to follow.''
''Americans and American business can play a key role in change in South Africa,'' Conway says; ''I don't think they realize how much.''
Conway wants to break South Africa's bonds of extremism with imagination and negotiation. ''Current thinking on South Africa is too stereotyped and focuses too much on dissecting the same old problem rather than in suggesting new solutions.'' He asks: ''Must millions of South Africans suffer in a situation of either revolution or oppression because of the lack of imaginative leadership?'' He believes there is another way: to encourage the path of peaceful evolution ''quickly and determinedly.''