Johannesburg — The South African government appears to be moving - gingerly - toward repealing two significant racial laws prohibiting marriage or sex between whites and blacks.
This week the government granted a parliamentary select committee, set up last year to consider ways to change the two measures, new powers to study the feasibility of scrapping the laws altogether.
The committee is dominated by members of the ruling National Party and chaired by the deputy minister of internal affairs, Piet Badenhorst.
The committee told the government bluntly that its investigation so far pointed to ''the desirability of the repeal of the two measures as they cannot be justified on scriptural or other grounds.''
Blacks do not consider these laws - the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages and Immorality acts - as fundamental to their demands for meaningful political rights. But for whites, particularly the ruling Afrikaners, the issues of marriage and sex across the color line are packed with emotion.
''These two parts of apartheid have been sacrosanct,'' says Mrs. Sylvia Gon, assistant director of the South African Institute of Race Relations.
''In terms of South African politics and Afrikaner ideology, the government's mere willingness to consider scrapping the laws is highly significant,'' she says.
South African Prime Minister Pieter Botha has said since 1979 that he has been willing to consider changing the laws. But only this week has the door been opened to the possibility of ending these racial restrictions altogether.
However, going through that door will undoubtedly be difficult for the government, since repealing these two laws could have a ripple effect.
If whites and blacks are allowed to marry, for instance, other laws that segregate residential communities would probably have to be amended.
Allowing mixed-race marriages would also seem to create difficulties about where the children of such marriages would go to school, since South Africa's schools are segregated.
Apparently recognizing these potential difficulties, the government granted the committee wider powers with the proviso that it pay due regard to ''continued social, educational, and constitutional ordering of communities.''
Analysts interpreted this as a slight hedge by the government.
The government's apparent resolve to consider abolishing these laws may stem partly from a shifting stance of the powerful and conservative white Dutch Reformed Church.
The oldest branch of the Reformed church - the Cape Synod - pleaded for a ban on mixed-race marriages in the 1930s. Last year the Cape Synod said laws against interracial sex and marriage were ''in conflict'' with the scriptures.