CAPE TOWN — COUNTLESS South Africans from across the political spectrum are setting about the process of building ''the new South Africa.'' which is scheduled to come into being no later than September 1994 (when the mandate of the current all-white Parliament expires).
In a fancy office building in Johannesburg, members of the ''education department'' of the African National Congress calculate how to spread their message more widely. They tie up an entire elevator with copies of their latest publications.
Then there is Andrew Boraine, former president of the white liberal National Union of South African Students and one of the founders of the multiracial United Democratic Front. the last time I saw him inside South Africa, 7 1/2 years ago, he was banned and could not be legally quoted in his country. Today Mr. Boraine laughs at the memory.
''This is our Prague Spring. Freedom of expression is now at its peak in the country's history,'' says David Dison, a Johannesburg lawyer active in the fight for greater press freedom in South Africa. ''But we will have to move quickly to establish a bill of rights and preserve it.'' That is the underlying theme of virtually every conversation a current visitor to South Africa is likely to have -- that these are exciting but dangerous and unpredictable times. The euphoria is tempered with a sense of foreboding.
One obvious danger is the widespread violence, which, appropriately enough, comes in black and white varieties. First in Natal, and more recently in black townships in every region, young, hot-headed supporters of the African National Congress and of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement have gone after each other with a deadly vengeance.
Less well publicized or understood outside South Africa is the violence perpetrated by the extreme right wing, mostly Afrikaners who feel that F.W. de Klerk and his National Party have abandoned the volk and sold out to communism. They are heavily armed -- there are probably more weapons per capita in private hands in South Africa than in any other country in the world -- and in recent months the Afrikaner Resistance Movement and some of its more violent offshoots have claimed credit for bombings at the homes or offices of cabinet members and Johannesburg city councilors, at opposition newspapers, at Jewish institutions and at bus stops frequented by black commuters.
But another danger entirely is that the dialogue on South Africa's future will be a charade and relatively few people will have an opportunity to participate in it. If that is the case, new South Africa may be barely distinguishable from the old.
After two weeks of traveling around the country. I am convinced that for all the public posturing and nasty rhetoric, the basic deal has already been cut -- that the National Party and the ANC are effectively becoming a ruling coalition. Indeed, the latest violence that has swept across South Africa is probably 66TC by-product of the closed negotiating process.
Even before the ground rules of the full-scale negotiation have been formally established, the white establishment press carries a minor, sometimes cryptic report every few days about informal, specialized talks between representatives of the government and the ANC.
Mr. De Klerk and Nelson Mandela, of course, need each other desperately. Each recognizes that the cost of winning an armed struggle against the other's forces is prohibitive, and neither one sees himself as having any viable alternative negotiating partners.
Mr. De Klerk's other options are grim indeed: Although the government spent years building up Chief Buthelezi, he is now regarded as vain and irresponsible, a has-been who is becoming less popular among the Zulus and has little hope of attracting the loyalty of any other ethnic group except English-speaking whites. Various black-consciousness organizations are growing in membership, but they are even less well organized than the ANC.
Mr. Mandela truly has no place else to go. There is little value in a close relationship with the Democratic Party and other white liberal groups, they are more useful to him as a progressive influence on the government's side. The far right has been implicated in plots to assassinate Mr. Mandela (along with Mr. de Klerk), and the Conservative Party, if it came to power, would almost surely find a way to put him back in prison. Any illusions of an alliance between Mr. Mandela and other black leaders like Chief Buthelezi have been dispelled by the recent fighting.
Although the ANC accuses the government of favoring Inkatha -- and this may be true of the police -- the National Party treats the ANC more and more as its junior partner in power.