WE are five minutes into the first period of play in this new South African ballgame, and Nelson Mandela, once the world's most famous political prisoner, is leading. To many, Mr. Mandela's release from prison represents the ultimate death throws of apartheid. South Africa is now changing profoundly and fundamentally. White supremacy is finally ending. Peace will now descend on this troubled land, they maintain optimistically.
To others, Mandela's release signifies the start of the real battle. Moderate whites will now face conservative whites; Afrikaners will face the very conservative Boers - the descendants of the Great Trek from the Cape Province to the Transvaal; Afrikaans speakers will face English-speaking whites - whose natural tendency will be to grab their suitcases. The three million mixed-race ``coloreds'' and the one million Indians will turn their attention from their previous oppressors, the whites, to the 28 million blacks, whose agenda is uncertain at best.
Perhaps the greatest tensions will emerge within the black community itself. There is a substantial black middle class that will not be served by radical socio-economic measures. An older, rural, illiterate, and conservative faction - perhaps 40 percent of all blacks - will face a more youthful, urbanized, literate, and militant black majority.
Chief Buthelezi and his four million Zulu followers may well confront the ANC, which opposes ethnic-based, federal units that could challenge centralized rule. Opposition to the ANC may also emerge from much more radical black organizations such as the Pan Africanist Congress, ``Black Consciousness'' groups, and even the small communist party. Most radicals want no accommodation of the whites, unlike the ``moderate'' ANC.
There is even greater potential for divisiveness within the ANC's own ranks and between the ANC and the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM). This latter group is comprised of the United Democratic Front, a huge federation of anti-apartheid organizations, and COSATU, a powerful and effective black labor federation.
The problem is that Mandela and other revered ANC leaders have been in jail for 27 years and are today in their 70s. The MDM has fought the police in the streets, alleys, and townships in recent years, and their members have been banned, tortured, killed, restricted. They have a lot of experience and battle scars - but also expectations. The old men of the ANC are respected figures, but they may be judged as ``out of touch.''
There is another group which may emerge into early prominence: the exiled ANC members, headquartered presently in Zambia. Their leader, Oliver Tambo, also well into his 70s, is undergoing medical treatment in Sweden. A young cadre is ready to take over, but few have any effective background for running the affairs of a complex state such as South Africa.
Foreign Minister Pik Botha and President de Klerk have both referred to the prospect of blacks playing an ``equal role'' in determining the future of South Africa's constitutional structure. But ``equal'' can mean different things. It can mean that all whites (5 million) are collectively equal to the 28 million blacks, as a group. Or, that all whites, Indians, coloreds, and blacks are equal - everyone gets one-fourth of the authority.
This version already exists in the present Parliament, from which blacks are excluded. And ``equal'' could mean ``one man, one vote'' - in the same nationwide election. That's what South Africa's blacks prefer, but don't hold your breath.
White conservatives won't accept any universal notion of ``equality.'' De Klerk's government may gravitate towards either equality of groups (which is not equality in the American sense), or a broader-based equality but with constitutional guarantees for minorities. Again, conservatives will reject this notion as the protection offered by the constitution will ultimately lie in the hands of the majority - unless apartheid is perpetuated in some form.
The government and ``responsible groups'' (in the government's judgment) are soon to agree on the start of ``talks about talks'' - pre-negotiations. This could be a long, laborious process. Within a few years, the old ANC guard might be too old to make a revolutionary impact. Younger MDM members could return to the streets.
The task before Mandela - and before all South Africans - is formidable. Expect no quick changes, as the issues at hand go far beyond the freeing of Mandela.
It is a new ballgame, but it is barely under way. By the time it is over, there will be many new players and new rules, and if the game gets messy and violent, a victory for either side could be hollow.