South Africa's largest black population group -- the Zulus -- are knocking on the door for entry into the political mainstream of the republic.
The Zulus, who a century ago posed one of the last major native threats to European power in southern Africa, now propose peaceful black-white power-sharing.
The power-sharing proposal -- made in a report by the ''Buthelezi Commission, '' named for Zulu chief Gatsha Buthelezi -- suggests that the ''black'' Kwazulu ''homeland'' merge with the government of ''white'' Natal Province, in which Kwazula is situated.
The power-sharing concept completely rejects the South African government's policy of separate development, under which Kwazulu and other black ''homelands'' eventually would splinter from the republic into ''independent'' black states. Blacks are expected to confine their political activity to these homelands.
The Zulu plan is seen as providing a model for the gradual extension of political rights to blacks throughout South Africa. The South African government's response to the Zulu proposal will be watched closely.
Prime Minister P.W. Botha already has caused a political upheaval in the ruling National Party by accepting the concept of ''power sharing'' with Indians and Coloreds (mixed-race) -- a more limited type of power-sharing than that suggested by the Buthelezi commission. The National Party refused to participate on the commission, which otherwise has broad political and racial representation.
Rejection of the Zulu proposal could alienate one of the few remaining ''moderate'' black leaders with credibility among blacks. Chief Buthelezi was not a member of the commission, but he is considered the driving force behind its establishment.
The possibility of some political integration working in the Natal-Kwazulu region are probably higher than anywhere else in the republic. The populations and economies of the two are deeply intermingled. And the large proportion of more liberal English-speaking whites in the area could make power-sharing more acceptable.
The government's plan to consolidate Kwazulu's numerous pieces of land into a single territory separate from Natal is seen as increasingly hopeless. Some 20 percent of the South African population lives in the Kwazulu-Natal area. The racial breakdown is roughly 10 percent whites, 12 percent Indians, 2 percent Coloreds, and 76 percent blacks.
The Zulu commission issues its proposals with some public-opinion findings. It finds a ''very high level'' of polarization between the extreme views of different race groups, and ''growing potential for direct violent confrontation.''
Yet the commission also concludes there remains enough middle ground among black and white views that a ''mutually acceptable accommodation is possible.''
Among the attitudes cited in the report:
* Blacks outside Kwazulu had no significant ''emotional or civic identification with the 'homeland.' ''
* Blacks want universal franchise in a unitary system. But a clear majority would also accept some form of power sharing.
* A majority of Coloreds and Indians and a near majority of whites support ''gradual extension of political rights'' to blacks.
* Fewer than half the whites and even less of the Indians and Coloreds feel separation of Natal and Kwazulu can last.
The shared government would eventually have a legislative assembly elected by universal adult suffrage. There would be ''minimum group representation'' in the assembly for groups that tally a minimum vote, but not enough to win any single district.
As a first step, the commission recommends establishing an executive committee with equal representation of whites and blacks, and other groups.
There would be a bill of rights. Minority groups would have right of veto that could be ''conclusive'' in matters pertaining to individual or group cultural rights.