Segregated South Africa just might be on the verge of taking a couple of small but promising steps toward racial justice.

Those steps would be even more promising if the white-dominated government had not just extended its repressive emergency rule for another year and stepped up its harassment of individuals and groups monitoring human rights.Yet it would be a mistake for the outside world to throw rocks at any prospect of progress in Pretoria even though South Africa's blacks and extreme right-wing whites seem determined to do so.

Under one plan from the government of President P.W. Botha, South Africa could have its first black cabinet minister as early as next September. Under another proposal, blacks could constitute a majority on a multiracial advisory council that would help negotiate a new constitutional system for South Africa.

Incredibly, the plans are encountering stiff opposition from whites who resist any political concessions to South Africa's black majority and from blacks who insist on even greater concessions, including the release of jailed black leaders despite their refusal to promise to avoid resorting to violence.

Politics is supposed to be the art of compromise. If South Africa doesn't master that art more rapidly than it seems to be doing, the upshot is bound to be more sanctions and other pressure from the outside plus more domestic tension and violence.

Down that road lies a national tragedy for South Africa. If South Africa is to avert it, the Botha plans for giving blacks a bigger voice in government should be given a chance. The fate of those plans will be watched closely by other nations as a guide in shaping their future policies toward Pretoria.