A venerable school of historiography holds that great men and women make history, not that history makes great men and women. It is still a chicken- and-egg argument: Who or which comes first, the revolution or the revolutionary, the reformer or the reformation, the parade or the person leading it? The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize last week to Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress, and F.W. de Klerk, President of the Republic of South Africa, bolsters both sides of this timeworn debate. De Klerk is pre- eminently an individual who has been pushed forward by the tide of events, a man of conservative bent who has been prodded by historical forces to act progressively, even boldly. It is not implausible to argue that whoever succeeded P.W. Botha as President of South Africa would have been compelled to release Nelson Mandela, dismantle the apparatus of apartheid and pave the way to the promised land of one-man, one-vote elections. For his part, Nelson Mandela has always taken the path of most resistance. The son of a Thembu chief, Mandela was groomed to be a traditional tribal leader but chose instead to become an outlaw in his own land, a man who fought an iniquitous system, not one who abided by it. During the 27 years he was imprisoned by a repressive white minority government, he kept a vision of a nonracist, color-blind society in which white and black lived together in harmony. During his imprisonment, it was he who first stretched out the hand of peace to the government that deprived him of freedom. In the more than three years since his release, he has remained true to that vision, preaching reconciliation where others advocated revenge, advocating compromise where others preached intransigence. Although he never fails to emphasize that he is part of a collective leadership, Nelson Mandela in his proud, insistent, fatherly way has shaped history even as it shaped him. For the moment, however, it does not matter much who is the driver and who the passenger, for these two leaders have been bound together by historical circumstances. The Afrikaner incrementalist and the African radical are locked in a symbiotic relationship in which each needs the other to create a new South Africa. To beget a democratic country, De Klerk and Mandela must bring their respective and historically antagonistic followers to the table of accommodation. The prize seals that partnership. To South Africans it may seem an odd time to award a peace prize to two native sons. The country is in the midst of an orgy of political violence that shows no sign of abating. The negotiating process over which Mandela and De Klerk have presided like detached yet querulous gods is, often on the verge of anarchy. Though an election date is set, few in South Africa believe it is written in stone. Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the political leader of the Zulu nation, is boycotting the talks, and the new Freedom Alliance, of which he is part, threatens to disrupt the elections. The right-wing Afrikaner Volksfront is calling for an autonomous white homeland and a halt to the election process. No doubt the Nobel committee is trying to nudge history a bit itself. There is a bitterness among black South Africans that Mandela has to share the award with De Klerk. The President may be the man who freed Mandela, but to most blacks his is still the face of the oppressor, the leader of the South African Defense Force, which only last week staged a raid against alleged African terrorists in the Transkei that killed five youths. Mandela has frequently derided De Klerk as a man who ''talks peace while making war,'' accusing him of being responsible -- directly or indirectly -- for the political violence in South Africa. At his press conference in Johannesburg to acknowledge the award, Mandela was asked what De Klerk had done to deserve it. ''Just ask the Nobel Peace Prize committee,'' Mandela replied. The freedom fighter at 75 has retreated a great distance from his initial description of De Klerk as ''a man of integrity.'' De Klerk is now simply the man he must do business with. The award has mixed consequences for both men. De Klerk, 57, must worry about the Jan Smuts syndrome. Smuts was the World War II Prime Minister of South Africa who was lionized abroad and discredited at home. Afrikaans- speaking whites are an insular tribe, and they turned out the urbane field marshal in 1948 for not attending to his own people. De Klerk's popularity is lower now than ever before. It has dropped steadily since he triumphed in the nationwide whites-only referendum on negotiations for a new constitution enfranchising blacks last year. A recent poll showed that only 32% of Afrikaners regarded De Klerk as their true leader, while 36% preferred a variety of right-wingers. To the people he needs most, the award is a sign not of his constancy but of his perfidy. Mandela must worry about the Chief Luthuli complex. Luthuli was the leader of the A.N.C. who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 at the very moment the A.N.C. was turning to armed struggle. Even as he was receiving the award, Luthuli, noble, stalwart, unshakable, was yesterday's man. That is how some of today's young lions in the townships see Mandela. They do not like Mandela's sharing even a podium with De Klerk, for to them sharing means equating, and De Klerk is the enemy. It is these young people who are restless with the snail's pace of change, who wonder why freedom must be negotiated at all. This would not be the first time the Nobel Peace Prize was premature. Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho won the award in 1973, but the fighting in Vietnam continued for two more years. Gorbachev got the prize in 1990, shortly before he was overtaken by events he could not control. In this case, perhaps, the award will be a harbinger and will prop up its recipients and the peace process. Neither man can afford for his counterpart to fail. De Klerk's fragility does not gratify Mandela. The skepticism of Mandela's left wing does not comfort De Klerk. History shows that the weaker the negotiating partners, the weaker the peace negotiated. For Mandela, who emerged unbowed after nearly three decades in prison, the award is a vindication of the past; for De Klerk, more politician than statesman, the prize might just show the way into the future.