Somewhere in the South African government's labyrinthine corridors of power, the country's white rulers are said to be mulling over a new blueprint for the country's future.
This plan, according to a number of analysts, will mark a reformulation of the policy of apartheid that the ruling National Party has pursued for nearly the past quarter-century.
The plan is being withheld from public scrutiny here until after general elections this April -- elections in which Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's National Party is projected to be returned to power. Then, Mr. Botha is expected to pursue a new strategy for dealing with this country's black majority.
The existence of a document setting out this strategy has been confirmed by several sources. Its exact provisions remain shrouded in secrecy and subject to change. But a number of analysts, using inside knowledge and a degree of surmise, outlined some of the key points for this newspaper.
Several caveats are in order. One is that government plans in south Africa have a way of being altered -- sometimes beyond recognition -- according to the exigencies of the white political process. Another is that the language of power tends to be imprecise here, leaving white politicians free to dissemble, indeed to disown their own pronouncements in the face of strong public reaction.
With those caveats, here are some of the key points of the emerging "total strategy" being contemplated by the South African government:
* The present white-ruled republic would be transmuted into a confederation, perhaps one with a black president.
This confederation would consist of a white-ruled state; the present nominally independent tribal reserves of Transkei, Bophuthatswana, and Venda; the Ciskei (expected to be declared independent Dec. 4, 1981) and five other ethnically based reserves (called "homelands" or "national states") that currently have limited self-government.
The powers of the confederation would be limited, and probably include providing defense needs and administering a common customs union and postal service.
* The present black "homelands" would be expanded and consolidated.
The homelands -- most of which are now composed of disjointed land fragments -- would be consolidated into parcels with well- defined borders. The Kwazulu reserve, for example, which now is split into some 29 pieces, would be joined into a single political subdivision encompassing much of the present "white" province of Natal.
Ultimately, a number of "white" municipalities -- including the towns of Pietersberg, King William's Town, and Richards Bay -- would be absorbed into black reserves. "White" South Africa would be reduced to the Cape of Good Hope Province, the central Transvaal Province (including the gold mining areas), and the Orange Free State.
* Soweto, the sprawling black township outside Johannesburg, would be declared a sort of "city-state."
Soweto, home to some 1.5 million black people, would be given a good measure of autonomy from the surrounding "white" areas. Its local government could be elevated to rough equivalency with the present "homeland" governments, and given direct control over municipal services and concomitant taxlevying authority.
* All South Africans -- black and white -- would be given a sort of "dual citizenship."
Each person would be given citizenship in a designated subdivision of the confederation -- the one in which he would vote -- and an overreaching "confederal citizenship." This is designed to meet the present black rejection of the homelands on grounds that they are created to deny black people of their South African birthright by substituting an inferior "second class" citizenship in tribal reserves which no other countries recognize.
Under the envisaged scenario, South Africa could issue "confederation" passports to all residents, regardless of race. These passports would be valid for international travel, but would not confer any other specific political rights. In other words, a black person could be issued a South African passport , but still be eligible to vote only in a specific tribal reserve.
Much of the overt racial discrimination in present "white" South Africa would be abolished.
Once political separation is achieved, the government would then abolish much of the so-called "petty apartheid" laws segregating public facilities. For example, "whites only" signs on buses and toilets could disappear, to be replaced by forms of economic discrimination: pay toilets and "first class" buses charging higher fares.
Among the last overtly discriminatory laws to go would be the ones preventing racially mixed marriages, since that serves as an underpinning for racially segregated schools and neighborhoods.
* The "confederation" would have a shared economy with minimal barriers to trade and commerce between each subdivision.
Apartheid, as originally envisioned by former Prime Minister H. F. Verwoerd, would have led to a number of completely autonomous, economically self-sufficient black states and one white state.
Government planners now realize that is not feasible, and will instead try to create a number of regional "growth points" to provide employment and business opportunities for both white areas and adjoining black reserves. If these "growth points" are successful in creating new jobs outside of the present urban areas, the white government could ease up on the rigid application of the "pass laws," which tightly circumscribe blacks' freedom of movement and are among the most hated aspects of apartheid.
And how will this "master plan" go over with blacks?
From the start, it is flawed -- perhaps fatally -- because, as far as can be determined, blacks were left out of its formulation. (Most of the drafters appear to have been white government planners and academics.)
There may well be some blacks who accept a confederal system as the best available alternative to the present apartheid system, but many more will likely see it as yet another ruse to keep black hands off political power.
One black man, after hearing the outlines of the plan, commented, "It's impossible to put people in nice, neat compartments -- and ignore that they interact with the rest of South Africa."
His summation: Unless the white government is prepared to repeal all discriminatory legislation and begin negotiating a new political order with the black majority here, it needn't bother with plotting out mere reformulations of government policy. For, in his view, "changes" imposed on blacks by whites will have the same practical consequences as no chan ge at all: mounting conflict between the races.