South Africa's ruling National Party is creating the impression at least of changing its stripes. The architect of racial separation, say analysts here, is succeeding in its efforts to appear the champion of moderation and reform.
The most recent boost to this image is the decision by South Africa's Colored (persons of mixed race descent) Labor Party to accept the government's plan for bringing Coloreds and Indians into the central government while continuing to exclude blacks.
The Labor Party decision probably gives the limited ''power-sharing'' plan enough support and credibility from across the color line for the government to proceed with it, say most analysts.
While the Labor Party justified its acceptance as a strategy to fight the government from within, Pretoria is undoubtedly delighted. The decision is an important victory in what most critics see as a government strategy of co-opting elements of the ''nonwhite'' population into participating in government and so giving it at least the semblance of being multiracial.
The Labor Party decision could affect the entire spectrum of black politics, say analysts here. Relations between blacks and Coloreds could deteriorate, and the up-to-now unified stance of blacks, Coloreds, and Indians to boycott participation in government-created institutions could begin to erode.
Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's plan for limited power-sharing is controversial because it excludes the black majority. Critics say at best the proposal is irrelevant to the main problem of accommodating blacks' demand for meaningful political rights. At worst, say opponents, the plan dangerously creates the illusion of reform while in reality heightening the prospects of black-white confrontation.
Whether the plan is illusory or not, the South African government does appear to be acquiring among whites the image of being sincere about reform.
In some respects the right-wing backlash, resulting in formation of the Conservative Party in response to the government's ''power sharing'' proposals early last year, appears to have helped the government. In recent by-elections, reform-minded whites seemed willing to support the National Party to ward off the new right-wing opposition. By doing so, they have helped the National Party portray itself as the moderate center of white politics.
''They (the National Party) have tried to present themselves as the moderate center of the political spectrum,'' says veteran opposition parliamentarian Helen Suzman, ''and it is working.''
Indeed, the opposition Progressive Federal Party, to which Mrs. Suzman belongs, appears to have lost ground with the white electorate for its rejection of the power-sharing plan because it excludes blacks.
''There is a mood for change and reform, so whatever is offered is grasped at ,'' Suzman says. This mood has apparently allowed the government to attract support from whites who feel the proposals are flawed but deserve backing because they might lead to more meaningful solutions.
At the same time, the government is consolidating its conservative base by, in effect, reaffirming its support for the fundamental policies of apartheid. Segregationist laws, the driving off of blacks into so-called tribal homelands, and strict control of blacks living in ''white'' South Africa remain basic government policy.
The decision by the Labor Party did not come as a great surprise to political analysts here, although there is much questioning of how representative the party is of Colored opinion. A number of prominent Coloreds claim the party is too conservative and out of touch with grass-roots sentiment.
While the Labor Party is the largest among Coloreds, its lack of any political platform has caused its influence to dwindle in recent years, says a number of observers. The prospect of gaining a platform in the new three-chambered Parliament (one chamber each for whites, Coloreds, and Indians) envisioned by the government's plan apparently was irresistible.
Labor Party leader Rev. Allan Hendrickse told party members Jan. 4 that ''the time for protest politics has passed.'' Although the Labor Party opposed the government's first blueprint for limited power-sharing in 1977, Hendrickse said participation was now the best strategy to achieve a unitary South Africa where blacks would be included.
''We believe you must fight where you can be seen and heard,'' he said.