MOST clearly missing from President P. W. Botha's long-awaited speech on racial policy reforms was a vision of a politically integrated community of South Africa and a proposed schedule of steps and timetable for fulfilling it. Even in offering a ``framework'' for dialogue, it suggested a spirit more of defiance than reconciliation. Mr. Botha was clearly speaking to his own party congress, not to critics outside South Africa or to disenfranchised South African blacks. He was seeking to protect his political flank while hinting at ``change,'' as he has in the past. None of these circumstances, however, change the conclusion that Botha and the white community do not yet seem ready to make any changes that would affect the white minority's hold on power.
What needs to be known is what Mr. Botha means by negotiation, to what end, and with whom. He is reluctant to meet with Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner. He will not let Nelson Mandela, the militant African National Congress leader, out of prison. And he rejects the appeals of the more moderate Zulu leader, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, for more specific declarations of intent. If the Botha government will not meet with this front line of black South African leaders, can it really be s erious about talking with anyone?
Mr. Botha seemed to pay little heed to what the United States and other governments in the midst of reevaluating South African ties might conclude from his speech. The Reagan administration had to feel let down. It fell back on its own minimum criterion for approaching East-West disputes -- a willingness to engage the Soviet Union in talks, without a commitment to timing or results -- to find something positive to say about the Botha address. Without a more specific commitment from Botha to disman tle the suffocating political laws of apartheid, the Reagan administration will find it hard to resist the legislation for economic sanctions which is moving through Congress.
Unfortunately, Mr. Botha chose to cast the tension in South Africa essentially in terms of power. ``I am not prepared to lead white South Africans and other minority groups on a road to abdication and suicide,'' he said. ``Destroy white South Africa and our influence in this subcontinent of southern Africa, and this country will drift into factions, strife, chaos, and poverty.''
To focus on power, asserting that one has it or fearing that one will lose it, leads too easily to an intimation of apocalypse or warfare.
A better route would be to perceive a society of full citizenship and responsibility -- freedom of movement and residence, equality of franchise under one government -- and work to prepare leaders of all racial and ethnic subgroups to achieve it.
It is that spirit of mediation, which attempts to make of concrete suggestions a plausible path to agreement without bloodshed, that must yet emerge in the white South African leadership's approach to apartheid.