IT is time for a reappraisal of what is happening in South Africa and of where events there may lead. A milestone in the development of the South African story was reached on August 23. On that date Kenneth Kaunda, president of Zambia, announced that the leaders of six black ``front-line'' states are asking President Reagan to confer with them and intercede on their behalf with the white South African government for more progress in taking down the system of racial apartheid.
The appeal to President Reagan occurred after the meeting of black leaders had failed to reach agreement on a policy of sanctions against South Africa. Only two of the ``front-line'' states, Zambia and Zimbabwe, agreed to support the sanctions which had been voted by key Commonwealth countries (former British colonies) on August 4. Four other ``front-line'' countries declined to go along with sanctions: Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Three of South Africa's other black neighbors -- Lesotho, Swaziland, and Malawi -- have also declined to impose sanctions.
The resort to President Reagan is a recognition that, in effect, the black movement for change in South Africa has lost a battle in its long campaign.
To put this in perspective we go back to 1984. Two elections were held in South Africa, one for delegates to the lower House of the legislature on Nov. 22 and a second for the upper House on Nov. 28. In those elections Indians and Coloureds voted for delegates to separate Indian and Coloured chambers. No blacks were eligible.
The exclusion of blacks from the parliamentary process, while Indians and Coloureds were being invited in, triggered a series of demonstrations, boycotts, riots, and police repressions. It was the beginning of a phase in race relations in South Africa which President Reagan has called ``civil war.'' Killings became a daily feature in the story.
The struggle between the white state and the black majority reached a new high level of intensity this year.
On June 12 the white government issued a declaration of national emergency under which the police were empowered, in effect, to do anything they chose to do to suppress trouble and restore law and order.
Police action since then has not ended all demonstrations and rioting but it has caused the detention of so many of the black leaders that an effective lid has been placed on black unrest.
In other words, the rising black tide has lost its momentum. Events are not moving inexorably toward a black takeover of power in South Africa as they once moved in other countries in Africa which were once ruled by whites and are now in black control. South Africa is different. It is not going to experience a repetition of what happened in Kenya and Rhodesia.
There have been similarities. Many whites who had British passports or could obtain entry permits to Australia and New Zealand have already gone there or are going. Even among Afrikaners there have been defections among the younger generation. But by and large the white Afrikaners are staying, and are remaining in possession of decisive military power. The white South African government possesses, and is using, the military's ability to dominate not only the territory of South Africa itself, but also all the surrounding black countries.
A combination of sanctions and rioting might, in theory, have set off a momentum which would have ended in a black takeover of power soon. That is not to be. There is not going to be a general program of decisive sanctions. The rioting is largely suppressed. A new status quo has come into being. It is not satisfactory to anyone. The blacks who thought they were on the march to power are frustrated. The whites are left with a deterioriating economy and the need to spend heavily in manpower and money on repression of black unrest.
This is a time for everyone concerned to take stock and reconsider policies and programs. One phase of the story has ended. Another is about to open.