INITIAL comment in the American press on current events in South Africa tends to deplore the fact that blacks are not to be given instant political equality. By implication, nothing has really changed. This assumption overlooks the most important fact of all. The amount of change specifically promised in the speech by President P. W. Botha is minimal. There will only be unspecified ``legal rights'' for blacks in the black townships around urban centers. But that promise, no matter how long the time between promise and fulfillment, is one of those statements that can transform mass thinking.
In every case, as an African country moved from colonialism to independence, there was a moment when the assumption of continuity of the old system gave way to the assumption that change was coming. That has been the watershed moment.
Anyone who has followed events in Africa since World War II will easily remember how long the whites of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, proposed to remain in control over a vast black majority (the ratio was 25 to 1), and expected to be able to remain in control indefinitely.
Ian Smith, Rhodesia's last white prime minister, was determined to hang on to white power and white supremacy. He did, for a long time. And during much of that time many whites, and many blacks, assumed that he could win. The black push for power was for long blunted by inability among blacks to believe that they could win.
But there was a moment when mental attitudes were transformed. Blacks became convinced that they were on the winning side. Their push gained strength and velocity. That was also when whites began to migrate. The issue was resolved long before the actual transfer of power. It was resolved at that intangible moment when both whites and blacks sensed the eventual outcome.
The Botha speech will probably show up in the history books as marking that moment in South Africa. Its content and tone did not express the quiet assumption that conditions in South Africa will remain unchanged forever. On the contrary, it promised change and led all to expect change.
True, it was defiant. Mr. Botha said he would not lead white South Africans ``on a road to abdication and suicide.'' He declared he would not accept ``one man, one vote.'' But didn't that sound like Ian Smith in the days when everyone but him and a faithful handful of white followers could read the writing on the wall? It sounded more like whistling in the dark than confident forecasting.
When I was born, in 1905, this world of ours was ruled from Europe by Europeans. There were the occasional isolated pockets of independence. Ethiopia was the only one in Africa. Thailand and Japan in Asia were technically independent, although under considerable European influence. Most of South America was also technically independent, but in practice under informal control either by a European power or by the United States.
The world was dominated by Europe right down to World War II. But since then the European tide has been ebbing. As recently as Richard Nixon's presidency, the State Department in Washington operated on the assumption that white rule would continue for as far ahead as one could foresee throughout southern Africa. That included Rhodesia, Angola, and Mozambique. Today, South Africa itself is all that is left of white rule in Africa.
In effect, President Botha has declared ``thus far and no farther.'' But the mere fact of his declaration is enough to tell us that the question is not whether he can continue to control most of southern Africa, but how much of South Africa itself will remain in white hands when the process of change is finished.
There will continue to be a ``white tribe'' somewhere in southern Africa. There are too many of the whites to go back to Europe. And they have been there for 300 years. But their ultimate tribal homeland is bound to be something less than the rich empire they control today.