Americans have a habit of building up heros, then destroying them expecting those admired to be perfect, then raging when a Solzhenitsyn or a Kennedy is found to be a person with faults and foibles like everyone else.

As a journalist, Donald Woods knows this cycle well. Donald Woods, the South African editor and anti-apartheid crusader, made a dramatic escape from his homeland in late December. Last week at the National press Club he was introduced as "an international folk hero" whose escape had "all the elements of an espionage thriller . . ."

"I am aware there's a 'comment' quality about me now," says Woods, "so I must say that what I've got to say quickly before it plunges to its doom.

"There is a very strong likelihood that if I try to sustain this too long my colleagues will start looking for a new angle."

There are different ways to head this off, and Donald Woods, a close friend of the late black leader, Steve Biko, has chosen an unusual one. Woods is on a media blitz in America speaking to groups ranging from campus seminars to business organizations, to President Jimmy Carter and Vice (See WOOD, B3, Col. 1> President walter Mondale last Thursday at the White House - and he seems to be trying to debunk the myth of his heroism before it seriously takes hold, before it gains such credibility it will have to be shot down.

He speaks of the enormous tension that South Africans live under. "Do you know," he says, "we have the highest rate of heart disease, divorce, alcoholism, all the stress diseases? It is a tension-ridden society. But people don't realize it. They are repressed into their subconscious."

Yet he will insist that he has never been a victim of that kind of tension, even after his accusations against the government, after Bikes death, led him to be "banned," (informally imprisoned) which in turn led to his escape, followed by that of his wife and children.

How did he remain calm?

"My wife Wendy often advances this theory, and I hestitate to say this," he says, "because it may sound preciously modest, but I'm extremely, aggressively, deeply, lazy.

"I actually do very little work. My average day in East London was to get up and arrive at the paper. (The Daily Dispatch) at about 10 in the morning. I never attended any editorial conferences; I stopped such things seven years ago. I never wrote editorials. I just sort of walked around the office, benevolently smiling at everyone, and then I was off to lunch.

"Then in the afternoon I'd play golf, if the mood moved me, I'd stop by the office for a few minutes. I got very involved in reading and chess, tennis, playing the piano. So I don't think those tensions were getting to you if you had that individual life that cushions you from all the nastiness.

"It just doesn't get to you as it did to most whites. You could always tell in conversations with them. It was never far from the surface."

Preciously modest?

Perhaps. But it works. At least insofar as one believes that it never got to Donald Woods. That this studied cool, this casual nonchalance is really the man speaking.

"In South Africa," he says, simply, "you get used to it (the tolls of apartheid). You have to. You allow your nerve ends to get covered over. Or you go mad."

He tells of taking a visiting British journalist to see a black community and of how she burst into tears when she saw the condition. "Wendy and I realized afterward that we weren't moved to burst into tears because we got immune to that level of shock."

At 44, Donald Woods is an attractive self-confident man with a booming baritone. He is clearly at ease with publicity, which he understands how he attained his reputation in South Africa as a fighter, a colorful and intelligent showman, using his power with the public to get his strong, anti-apartheid, anti-government views across in the most dramatic way.

He has a deeply lined face and white hair, still tinged with a black hair dye he used as a disguise in order to escape from South Africa. And always, always that unruffled sense of cool.

"This trip," he says; is political. It is sponsored by the African American Institute to spread the word. To try and seriously bugger around people like Mr. Van Rooyen and the South African embassy; a task to which we all most strive.'

When Donald Woods, a fifth generation South African entered law school at the University at Capetown he began to think twice about the apartheid system in South Africa.He had came from a conservative, English-speaking family and had been brought up in the Transkei. He never graduated from the University but instead at 24 he ran for parliament with an anti-apartheid party. His friends and enemies in South Africa have described him as a frustrated politician. After losing, he went to London, then to America, where he worked as a freelance journalist and ended up back in London playing the piano in a cocktail lounge.

After a few years he returned to South Africa, became a reporter on the independent East London Daily Dispatch. An anti-apartheid, English-Language paper. By the time he was 31 he had become the editor. He soon became a familiar face, through his columns, on the lecture circuit and on television. He enjoyed the publicity and the controversy he was able to stir up. He basked in the easy life.

He owned a beautiful house surrounded by gardens which he later sold to his paper for twice the amount, then rented it from the paper. He drove a Mercedes. He has an attractive wife, Wendy, 36, who was a concert pianist and also from a conservative South African family, and five children. They saw friends, played the piano and composed together. he played golf and chess, and tennis. It was the relatively idylic life. The children did go to all-white schools but had a few black friends. "We would take the kids to the drive-in, go to the beach, occasionally it was hard. You were under threats a lot of the time and five bullets were fired into the house one night. But that wasn't the norm. Life was relatively quiet. Oh, sometimes the boys would come home and say someone's daddy had said their daddy was a Communist. But in a town like East London, while you encountered criticism, editors were regarded as important figures in the community. I would sort of make speeches at schools and universities, Rotary meetings, stuff like that."

Then came the Steven Biko arrest and Biko's subsequent, death. From then on Donald Woods' life changed drastically. Because of his protests against the government over the Biko affair, he was banned - in South Africa that means you are not allowed to be in the company of more than two other people at a time, you are under constant surveillance and you are not allowed to be quoted.

Several times, he says, when people came to his house, he would see them upstairs so that if the police entered the house he could quickly rush into another room. "It was pretty dicey," he says. "If your wife and another couple were at the table and you were at the bar and they burst in, you were in real trouble.

While he was banned, he began writing his book on Steven Biko, called "Biko" to be published in May. At the end of each day he would take what he had written, hide it in a record jacket and the next morning have those pages smuggled out of South Africa.

One day his daughter received a T-shirt in the mail and when she tried it on it burned her skin. The shirt was later traced to the police, Woods decided it was time to get out. He planned and executed his now well-known dramatic escape. He dyed his hair; wore a mustache; posed as a German author, an Australian poet and others; walked, hitchhiked and swam across a river in order to escape, sending his family out behind him.

"I must say," he laughs. "I feel a bit phony about the drama of the escape. Particularly about the stories of swimming a raging river. It was really little more than a creek."

Once his family was reunited in London, he undertook to publicize the plight of the blacks in South Africa.

Last Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Retief Van Rooyen, Esq., counsel to the South African police in the recent inquest on Biko's death, was conveniently sightseeing, as a visiting private citizen, in the Rayburn Building where Donald Woods was testifying before the House subcommittee on Africa.

A press officer from the South African Information Office passed out releases explaining that Mr. Retief Van Rooyen, would be holding a press conference in the hallway immediately after Mr. Woods' testimony.

Woods agreed to a joint press conference.

When Woods appeared in the Hallway, Van Rooyen was pacing outside the door. His jaw was set tightly, his face, while with rage, his voice virtually shaking with anger. A short, thin, white-haired man, he strutted about like a bantam whose neck had just been severed from the rest of his body.

"I came to this country to see the sights and believe me ladies and gentlemen," he cried, circling the microphone, "I have seen the sights. I find myself listening to a person who alleges he swarm a wild river to get out of his country and has put the big lie to you. For the first time," he said, "I have not felt welcome in your country."

While Woods stood by, smoking cigarette after cigarette, Van Rooyen then began a "press conference." He embarked on a monologue about the virtues of aparthied, and a group of 25 or so journalists tried to get him to answer questions.

"Why can't Mr. Woods be quoted in our country?" Van Rooyen would repeat." Well, will answer that when I'm finished . . . .

"Mr. Woods knows he is asking you to play into the hands of the imperialists in Africa." Laughter.

A little later Van Rooyen repeated another question, "Does South Africa have a democratic process?Well, I'll come to that." Laughter.

"Mr. Woods is asking you to reject everyone but the lunatic fringe."

"You meant the 17 million blacks," replied a reporter.

Laughter. "Laugh away, gentlemen." The male and female reporters laughed.

The laughter subsided when Woods asked him to explain the death of Steven Biko. He began a laborious description of how Biko was killed in self-defense. The reporters shouted at Van Rooyen, who shouted back. He and Woods tried to argue but were drawned out by pro-South Africa listeners who creamed at the reporters to shut up. Woods began losing his cool.

Van Rooyen, pressed by reporters to answer Woods questions, insisted that his country was not the only one which institutionalized racism legally because the U.S. Congress had a Black Caucus that wouldn't allow whites. And finally the group dispersed when Van Rooyen claimed that blacks in South Africa do have the vote. "They vote in their own constituency."

The next day, Woods admitted that the press conference had been hard for him.

"I had a problem," he said. "I didn't want to back away although it was repugnant. The man should be faced down. But it was hard for me to hear him talk about my closest friend, Biko, that way. I wanted to hit him as hard as I could. But it would have turned of a constituency I wanted to reach. But you do end up shaking with rage. He is typical of the Afrikaner nationals. The orrrogance, the emotional imbalance, the profound hatred of blacks which he may not be fully aware of. His reliance on the facts has no relation to reality. I was having great emotional problems not planting him one."

Donald Woods believes, with Dante, that "there is a special place in hell for those who remain neutral on moral crisis."

And he plans to continue writing and speaking,as long as he is effective, on the problems of South Africa. He believes that his departure and the publicity has awakened the concern in Western countries to the dangers in South Africa, that it has raised black morale and alerted the rest of the country to the seriousness of repression of the press. On the other hand he is worried that the government might use his departure as a stick to beat the English-speaking press.

And there is nothing he can do about that.

For now he is content to do his media number, to reach as many people as he can, and to sell his book. This summer he and his family will go to Cambridge, Mass., where he will be a Neiman fellow and where he will write another book on South Africa.

What he really would like is to eventually go home.

"Hell," he says. "I'd like to back. But maybe I'm fooling myself. I could be sentenced to death."

And he's worried that if he stays away too long he will have trouble managing to "earn a bloody living."

But then his frown disappears and he lights up another Peter Stuyvesant. "Oh well," he sighs with a smile. "Maybe it will be back to the cocktail lounges playing the piano."