THE SELF-INFLICTED wounds of South Africa are so raw that both observers and participants often fall to shouting. Much of the literature dealing with the country's problems is shrill, intense, insistent. Perhaps, for many reasons, it should be; certainly we understand why it is so. But the problems spawned by apartheid -- indeed, the nature of apartheid itself -- touch the innermost areas of human life: feelings, attitudes, stances so unconsidered that their inhumanity cannot be felt.

Lewis Nkosi's Mating Birds addresses these very areas, in a quiet, poetic voice, set down in prose of glowing simplicity. Nkosi, a Zulu, was exiled by his country's government more than 20 years ago, and is currently a professor of literature at the University of Zambia. What a shame that his own country can no longer claim him, because Mating Birds is very possibly the finest novel by a South African, black or white, about the terrible distortion of love in South Africa since Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope.

"In a few days I am to die," writes a young Zulu student named Sibiya. He is in a prison cell awaiting execution by hanging. He has -- it is alleged and the court has found -- raped a white woman. From the cell, he recounts the bizarre events leading up to his destruction, his early life in a Zulu community, the conditions of his life as a student at the University of Natal in Durban, and as a young man in a country where whites are "accustomed to regarding the blacks as nothing but pegs on which to hang their hats."

Beneath an ominous warning sign ("Bathing Area -- For Whites Only") he first sees the white woman sunbathing on the beach. For reasons he barely understands -- such thoughts should be impossible for him -- he is drawn to her. Although neither utters a word or approaches the other, it is obvious that Veronica Slater responds to him and, with carefully measured glimpses of her body, courts his interest and keeps it alive. They "meet" every day. On days when she fails to appear, he misses her. When they come into accidental contact in a shop, they are both embarrassed and uncomfortable.

Denied all contact by the world in which they live, they are, Sibiya says, "lovers in everything but name." In fact, they are "locked in a sickening but unloving embrace," which leads, first, to a terrible (because distorted) pantomime of love-making on the beach and, later, to the violence of physical contact. And, because this is South Africa, the contact means death for Sibiya. SIBIYA'S STORY deals with love, and with lust and sex, but because the personal images are always enlarged, they become images of all South Africa. His world is one in which love -- and he means all intimate human contact and knowledge -- simply is not possible. "Love," he writes, "passion, simplicity, even ignorance can be forgiven. They are not the things for which one is too ashamed to die. But they are not what I will die for. No, I'll die of a vaster, deeper, more cruel conspiracy by the rulers of my country who have made a certain knowledge between persons of different races not only impossible to achieve but positively dangerous even to attempt to acquire."

Yet the great irony is that it is not even for the sake of love that he is going to die: "For love, I repeat, anything can be forgiven. But love is not what I felt for this girl. To such a cheap, worthless emotion only the name of lust can be given. For mere servile desire is what I will hang for, that impossible dream of all disconsolate, dissatisfied young men, which is the attainment of the forbidden fruit, a hunger and thirst enjoyed more in its contemplation than in its satisfaction." Thus is he reduced. And the glowing object of his desire, the woman, who easily lies in court and turns out to be a stripper in a Durban nightclub, has no grace other than the color of her skin.

Nkosi writes vividly of Sibiya's Zulu childhood, and of the conflicts among the native people, both desiring and fearing to approach the white world and then being corrupted by its touch. He writes movingly of Sibiya's mother, a vibrant young Zulu beauty degraded first by the slums of Durban and then destroyed by the fate of her son. And most memorably he writes, in language that is both passionate and perfectly controlled, of the sad fate that South Africa has inflicted on itself. It is a world that, like Sibiya (and like Stephen Kumalo in Paton's Cry the Beloved Country), is awaiting death, but Nkosi's quiet voice is likely to linger in the ear long after the shouts and cries have faded away.