Has South Africa's white-minority government created a political ''dodo bird'' doomed to eventual extinction from lack of sufficient public support. That is the question being asked here as Coloreds and Indians weigh whether to vote in or boycott the elections tomorrow and next week that would give them a role in Parliament.
The issue is whether enough voters will go to the polls to give the new-style government any credibility. The election will make Coloreds (who vote Aug. 22) and Indians (who vote Aug. 28) only junior members of Parliament; real power will continue to rest with whites. And the Parliament would continue to exclude blacks.
In the closing days of the election campaign, it seems clear that:
* The new-style government, billed by the ruling National Party as the dawning of an era of ''consensus'' politics, is in the short term promoting divisions and conflict between black and white, and within the nonwhite community itself.
* The white government and the participating Colored and Indian political parties are fighting an uphill battle to gain a respectable showing of voters. No one expects a majority of voters to turn out.
* Short of a disastrous outcome at the polls, the government and the participants will, regardless of the voter turnout, press ahead with the new system, which will be costly and time-consuming to implement.
Modern South African history is riddled with government-created political bodies aimed at bringing nonwhites into the ''system.'' But it has always been done on the white minority government's terms. These institutions have eventually collapsed or limped along ineffectively because in the eyes of nonwhites they have evaded, rather than answered, the demand for meaningful political power.
The newest government offering - a tricameral Parliament controlled by whites but including Coloreds and Indians - appears to give with one hand and take away with the other. Coloreds and Indians will gain some real, though strictly circumvented, power. But the country's black majority has been constitutionally excluded from government.
The angry glare of blacks, suspicion of the motives of the white government, and general apathy are expected to keep most Coloreds and Indians away from the polls. But the battle for the wavering minority has been fierce.
South Africa's television service - largely controlled by the government - has plumped unabashedly for the elections. Its most vicious salvo came few nights before the Colored election in a program that went at great, though inconclusive, lengths to try to link the main group opposing the vote with the banned African National Congress.
The main opposition body is the United Democratic Front, an umbrella organization made up mainly of blacks. In what the UDF dismissed as a blatant smear campaign, the TV program displayed pamphlets put out by the ANC and the South African Communist Party - both illegal organizations here - that had pictures of the UDF on their covers. The UDF denies links with either group.
The UDF also charges that its members have been detained while talking to potential voters and UDF posters and newsletters have been confiscated.
The campaign has frequently turned violent. Meetings of the Labor Party, the main participating Colored group, have been impossible to hold in some areas of the country because of the possibility of violence between pro- and anti-vote forces. There have also been some bombings of homes of Colored and Indian politicians participating in the elections.
The elections have proved a rallying point for antigovernment forces, usually divided from one another on philosophic issues. The UDF, the Azanian People's Organization, and homeland leader Gatsha Buthelezi - all with different political points of view - have urged Indians and Coloreds not to vote. Black trade unions also reject the new Parliament and called on voters to boycott the elections.
The government says there are about 900,000 Coloreds and about 410,000 Indians registered to vote. The ultimate turnout at the polls will be figured as a percentage of the number registered to vote. But even though it is legally required that one register to vote in South Africa, many Coloreds and Indians probably have not registered, say political analysts. The government insists it has no accurate estimate of the true number of potential voters. So the final percentage poll is destined to err in favor of the government and those taking part in the vote.