TO appraise the important policy speech South African President P. W. Botha made last week, we must first clear away some debris. He did not offer ``one man, one vote,'' or full citizenship, or equal rights, to the blacks of southern Africa. But there was never the slightest chance that he would do any such things.
The central political fact about South Africa is that the official, recognized government is a government run by whites for the benefit of the white community, just as Israel is a government run by Jews for the benefit of Jews and Ulster is a Protestant community controlled by Protestants for the benefit of Protestants.
The three situations are identical in that in each, effective control is exercised by members of one community for the benefit of that community. Mr. Botha has no black constituents. His speech is not to be measured for signs of progress toward equal rights for blacks. There is no progress in that respect. But the speech is interesting in another respect.
The key passage in the speech says:
`` . . . the acceptance by my government of the permanence of black communities in urban areas outside the national states means that the solution will have to be found for their legitimate rights.''
Pure apartheid is gone. It ended with ``acceptance by my government of black communities in urban areas outside the national states.''
Under pure apartheid, all blacks would have been pushed into black tribal homelands, leaving white South Africa to be all white. That went when it was decided to allow the black townships to survive in or near the white urban areas.
This is an admission by the white government that the white community cannot run its economy without black help in the mines, fields, factories, mills -- and kitchens. So the permanent inclusion of some blacks in the community is now accepted. The speech also accepts, for the first time, the inevitable next step -- which will be to identify and implement black ``legitimate rights.''
The speech goes no further than that. The definition of those rights and the implementation of them remain for the future. But this opening step, plus less official remarks made by others after the speech, sketches the outlines of the way leadership thinking is going in South Africa.
The leaders know that the present situation is impossible. There must be change to the advantage of some blacks. But the white leadership is determined to keep in South Africa a country run by whites for the primary benefit of whites.
It recognizes that to continue to do this it will have to have willing black cooperation. To get it government is going to have to do more, much more, for the blacks who are to be accepted as permanent residents in the predominantly white community.
These are the outlines within which the future of the two races will be worked out. It implies changes in internal ethnic boundaries. White South Africa is determined not to be overwhelmed by blacks, but it can redivide the land to black advantage. There is talk of an ultimate federal state in which there would be some all-black, some black and mixed, and some largely white states.
Under such a system, treatment of blacks in white-dominated states could be balanced against treatment of whites in the largely black states. Obviously, the largely white states would have to be satisfied with less territory than whites now dominate.
This is long-term thinking. It offers little to the blacks immediately. Black expectations have been running beyond realistic possibilities. The only real progress is the white recognition that some blacks will have ``legitimate rights'' in a new system.
Will time wait on such gradual progress? The chances are that it will. Congress will legislate its disapproval at the slow pace. But unless the American Congress wants to go to war, which it does not, white South Africa will move -- slowly. The speech calls for slowest possible change.