Johannesburg — Those who have opted to try to change apartheid from within by working with South Africa's ruling whites have been handed a fresh reminder of how difficult the task will be.
Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) have asked the government to scrap a law that prohibits integrated political parties, hoping such a step would help nudge Pretoria away from its system of strict racial separation. But the government says segregation in the political realm is the inviolate principle guiding its vision of so-called ''reform.''
The squabble between the ruling Nationalists and the Colored Labor Party over this issue suggests these political groups have diametrically opposed views about the purpose of the limited power-sharing system that is scheduled to go into effect here in three months.
In September, the government is scheduled to allow Coloreds and Indians to have representation in a new tricameral parliament. This legislative body will give nonwhites a larger role in government than they have had but will not give them anything close to the level of power enjoyed by whites. But the so-called reform excludes the country's black majority.
A fierce battle is going on in the Colored and Indian communities over participation in the new system of government. Elections for both communities are to be held in August, and those opposed to the new dispensation are urging a boycott.
The Labor Party is the largest political grouping of Coloreds. Its leaders justify the decision to participate in the elections as a ''Trojan horse'' option. Labor says it will exploit the government's modest reformist intentions for more dramatic changes.
But so far, Labor's bid to scrap the law banning integrated political parties appears to have backfired and strengthened the hand of those who argue the government is, in fact, entrenching apartheid (racial separation) with its new Constitution.
In a rebuff to the Labor Party, Minister of Internal Affairs F. W. de Klerk said: ''The new constitution is indivisibly linked to the principle that each race group must exercise its participation in the democratic election process within a group context.''
The Labor Party wants to put up candidates for both the Colored and Indian parliamentary seats. This would give it more political muscle in the legislature.
Labor has acted illegally by electing Indian Salam Abram-Mayet to its executive in Transvaal Province. The party seems to be daring the government to prosecute it.
Political analysts say Labor is trying to enhance its chances at the polls. By appearing at odds with the government, Labor may convince some would-be boycotters that it is serious about challenging apartheid laws once it is in parliament.
The government has reaffirmed its dedication to political segregation, but labor's demand presents a dilemma, analysts say. If the government offers no concessions, it could damage Labor's credibility - and that of the new parliament.