A top South African official has thrown cold water on a presidential pledge -- only days old -- that apartheid is on its way out. The message Tuesday from the country's National Education Minister -- that he would never let blacks into white public schools -- threatened to undermine President Pieter W. Botha's bid to convince blacks he is sincere about giving them a say in how the country is run.
Much will depend on the extent to which Mr. Botha moves to balance his minister's approach with the kind of newly conciliatory phrasing he has adopted since this year's opening of Parliament last Friday.
But the potential risk from the statement of Education Minister Frederik de Klerk seemed especially acute given the political crisis that has gripped black schools over the past 18 months.
Black political leaders last week called off a long school boycott -- but vowed to reconsider if Mr. Botha fails to meet a variety of political conditions by the end of March.
Senior officials here have privately voiced concern over the possibility of renewed trouble in the schools. One source says he is pinning hopes for reestablishing a measure of political calm in South Africa on whether ``we can get past the next two months as far as the school situation is concerned.''
A spokesman for the Parents' Crisis Committee that helped end the boycott in Soweto has been quoted as saying the government should consult with the group in drafting promised educational reforms.
Mr. de Klerk's remarks, made in a briefing for foreign reporters, were less surprising for their content than for their tone.
No one -- up to and including President Botha -- has suggested that so fundamental a pillar of apartheid as segregated public schools was on the brink of disappearing. Indeed, the black boycott's spokesmen have put more immediate emphasis on other demands -- such as upgrading black education, lifting the state of emergency imposed in black areas during last year's mounting unrest, and the release of black detainees.
Botha's keynote speech to Parliament Friday -- though rejecting apartheid as ``outdated'' -- also made it clear he favors a substitute system stopping short of fully equal rights for the country's 22 million-strong black majority. He spoke instead of ``equal treatment and opportunities.''
De Klerk similarly stressed his commitment to greatly expanded spending on black schools -- an overcrowded system in which 75 percent of the faculty lacks adequate teaching credentials.
But what struck most political analysts here was the categorical fashion in which de Klerk ruled out even eventual desegregration with the phrase: ``Not as long as my government is in power.''
This jarred with the most important innovation in Botha's Parliament speech, and in a follow-up appeal for black and white-liberal support in Sunday newspapers. In the past, Mr. Botha has translated general pledges of ``reform'' into a list of promised changes in law responding to what he saw as black aspirations.
But now, says Hermann Giliomee, a prominent political science professor here, Botha ``has made the major departure of presenting his policy as an open-ended process, to bring about power-sharing.''
Mr. Giliomee, a leading moderate voice in the Afrikaans-speaking white community from which Mr. Botha and other postwar leaders here have come, feels internal ``Afrikaner politics'' may help explain the education minister's categorical tone.
To the extent Mr. Botha pushes ahead with efforts to bring blacks into a process of political compromise and power-sharing, Giliomee expects a severe backlash among the most conservative of Afrikaners.
Their stronghold is the province of Transvaal, Mr. de Klerk's home base.