MOST blacks and civil rights leaders in South Africa and elsewhere are skeptical over the decision by the government of South Africa to delay its black resettlement program for ``rethinking.'' The skeptics are of course correct that white South Africa is not going to do an abrupt turn away from its policy of apartheid. Great social changes take time. How long has it taken the United States to achieve racial desegregation? Is the process that began at a high school in Little Rock, Ark., in the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower complete today?
South Africa, which has further to go than the US, is hardly going to take apart its own form of segregation this year, or probably in this decade. But it has for the first time decided to rethink the policy of resettlement of all blacks in ``tribal homelands'' before going further along the road of tearing many thousands of black families away from their actual ancestral homes and condemning them to economic misery and squalor in areas unfitted for high-density occupation.
The essential fact in the background of this moment of hesitation is that white South Africa has been both unwilling and indeed unable to pursue a separation of white and black races to its true logical conclusion.
In theory it could be done and on terms acceptable to the black community, but to do it the white community would have to deprive itself of all black labor in the white community. Also, it would have to be willing to share the land and its resources fairly between the majority black community and the minority of whites.
But black labor has become essential to the economy of South Africa. Industries, factories, mines -- and many an office -- would have to close down if all the blacks walked away. The white minority has made itself dependent on the labor of the black majority. If history teaches anything, it teaches that the working majority cannot be kept in a state of indefinite subjection by a ruling minority.
White South Africa has never been willing to separate itself truly from black Africa. It has never been willing to share the three main resources of the country -- gold, diamonds, and farmland -- with the blacks. It has kept these resources in white hands and expected the blacks to do the hard and menial labor, yet keep their families in remote and separated misery.
The resettlement program even called for uprooting black farming families who have owned and worked their land for generations to accept resettlement on land unsuited to agriculture.
There is no telling at this time just how much change the present process of ``rethinking'' will lead to, or how soon. The newly confirmed Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, Desmond Tutu, is among the skeptics. He says he will call for a worldwide financial boycott of South Africa unless President P. W. Botha goes much further, and faster, toward ending apartheid than he has yet proposed.
But there is change. President Botha is groping for some way of engaging the leaders of the black community in a dialogue. He says he is ready to consider giving them freehold property rights. He says he wants to discuss their future constitutional status.
Until President Botha announced this change in his thinking about white and black relations in South Africa, the blacks were supposed to be converted into foreigners by being relegated to the black ``tribal homelands.'' Now he is talking about treating them as residents of South Africa with actual rights of their own, including the right to own property.
The practice of apartheid may last in residual form for a very long time, just as the practice of racial segregation has survived in places in the US. But once the blacks of South Africa are recognized as having ``rights'' as permanent residents in South Africa, an enormous step has been taken. The philosophical basis of the white-black relationship has been transformed.
No matter how slowly the implementation, there is no turning back from this historic step away from the dogma of apartheid.
Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the US in 1863. Not until the Roosevelt ``New Deal'' in the 1930s was a serious effort made to bring blacks into the political community. Not until the 1984 election did blacks vote in large numbers. Change comes slowly.