A political prisoner who survives unbroken 27 years in South African jails has legitimate claims on the world's moral respect. He has a right to its attention and adulation. He deserves its gratitude, for refusing to be dehumanized.

But Nelson Mandela, whatever severities he has endured, is due nothing when he calls for violence as a way to create a just society in South Africa. He is owed nothing when he labels such international gangsters as Yasser Arafat "comrades in arms."

Mandela's favoring of violence is not the bloodthirsty death-to-our-enemies yell that the world has heard from its Khomeinis and Pol Pots. He speaks with the sounds of reasonableness and, in fact, differs little from any conventional political leader in a conflict against an armed oppressor: We want to negotiate, we are committed to peace but we will use arms if necessary.

Mandela declared in a New York Times interview: "The methods of political struggle which are used by the oppressed are determined by the oppressor himself. In our country, the methods which we use in the course of our struggle are determined by the government. If the government chooses to use peaceful means of resolving problems, there would never have been a question of resorting to armed struggle. But when the government banned our organizations, closed all channels of communication ... we have no alternative but to resort to violence."

This is martial music to the ears of violent governments, an oft-played dirge heard throughout history. Violent governments want their victims to fight back with guns, because oppressive rulers tend to have more weapons as well as more hired hands -- in the police or military -- to fire them.

Mandela is wrongheaded in his idea that "the methods of political struggle which are used by the oppressed are determined by the oppressor himself." That wasn't true when Mohandas Gandhi confronted the violence of the British in the 1940s, or when Martin Luther King Jr. challenged Southern police forces and Northern mobs in the 1960s, or when Lech Walesa or Corazon Aquino defied their dictatorships in the 1980s, or when the early Christians faced the Roman Empire in the 1st century.

These pacifists, and a long list of others whose names and heroism are given little, if any, space in history texts, chose violence-free defense. All were told by the knowing and wise that their pacifism, while commendable, was foolhardy and wouldn't work. They proved doubters wrong. The literature of nonviolence runs deep with resistance movements that determined their own methods of struggle while rejecting the state's. Revolutionaries armed with moral ideals and passions for justice, and who refused to fight with guns, have had far fewer failures than those who confronted authority's violence with more violence.

Much of the change in South Africa is because the classic nonviolent tactic of economic sanctions has been effective. Although it has not brought on change fast enough or broad enough, South African racists are in a political retreat that guns could never have caused.

For victims, reform is always slow. The temptation, which Mandela has given in to, is to believe reforms can be hurried by clenching fists and pulling triggers and to say, as he did to George Bush at the White House: "If we are forced to resort to violence, it is because we had no other alternative."

Criticizing Mandela for such thinking is justified only if other realities are kept in mind, which they usually aren't. The reactive violence of the trapped and brutalized -- long the status of the African National Congress -- is more understandable than the first-strike violence of the powerful. Who is George Bush to sermonize to Mandela, as he did at the White House, to seek democracy "through nonviolent means" when U.S. arms sales to Third World governments increased 66 percent in 1988 over 1987?

Bush's pieties that it is time in South Africa to "break free from the cycle of repression and violent reaction" are the mouthings of a hypocrite. It is America's militaristic government that leads the world in weapons production and arms spending. Citizens lately slaughtered and maimed by U.S. weapons in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Libya and Panama are mocked by Bush's effrontery in telling Mandela to lay down his arms.

When Jonas Savimbi, the U.S.-backed thug in Angola, came to Washington, the Reagan-Bush crew issued no calls for him to renounce violence. Instead, he was egged on.

Mandela at the White House was easily the moral superior of Bush. The South African at least spoke of his willingness to lay down his arms. Bush's last word on the subject -- his proposed budget -- calls for more weapons.