THE TALL, young African was strangely seated in a chair, all alone in the middle of an immense field just under the airstrip at Ulundi, the newly built capital of Kwazulu, or Zululand. Except for a few goats grazing on the grass strip, half a mile away, he was undisturbed .

His hands were held out in front of him, extending out from his full-length robe. Every few seconds he would wrench them around to the left, back straight, then around to the right. From time to time one hand would drop to his side and move quickly in and out .

He was prccticing how to drive a car. IN SALISBURY, the capital of Rhodesia, Meikle's Hotel is the center of what social life still exists. People still dress for dinner, and dance to the music of Jack Dent and his aging combo. From morning till night, old ladies mix with unarmed paratroopers in the lobby drinking tea or whiskey, watching the comings and goings of the embattled and the curious .

Black uniformed guards stand at the doors, in front of small empty tables, stopping anyone with a package or a purse, to look for bombs or grenades of other weapons .

One afternoon last week, a handsome white couple in their 30s walked up to the doors for the usual inspection -- she blonde and tanned, he mustached and rugged, both obviously ranchers in from the bush .

The double-take came when you saw that the guard searched her purse and his pouch, but totally ignored the semi-automatic rifles each was casually carrying .

THE IMAGES linger hauntingly, after a 15-day immersion in South Africa and Rhodesia, not as keys to any code which points to miraculous solutions to the desperate problems confronting each country, but simply as reminders without judgment that "white Africa" is overwhelmingly black and strange, and full of contradictions and strong, purposeful people.

NEVER BEFORE have I been involved in a country where conversation is so overwhelmed by a single subject. In South Africa today, Topic A is race, nothing else. So is Topic B, C and D, all the way to Topic Z. South Africa is going through its own Watergate scandal, but the scandal involves the diversion of government funds and the commission of government crimes to sell the various policies of apartheid and white supremacy and the silencing of critics. So even conversation about the scandal, the so-called Muldergate after former Information Minister Connie Mulder, is conversation about race.

Talk about sports is talk about race, in South Africa. So is talk about real estate, so is talk about sex.

From all this conversation, two powerhouse convictions emerge, first as surprises, then as truths:

The white ruling class enjoys massive support from the white minority population. In other words, apartheid -- petty or grand -- is embraced by the white establishment. The logic of the white opposition may seduce visitors, but it falls preponderantly on deaf ears at home.

There are plenty of intelligent, reasonable, popular blacks to negotiate with today -- interlocuteurs valables , the French called them when they surrendered sovereignty to the North Africans more than 20 years ago. But they won't be there for long, as they get first pressured, then replaced by their more radical children.

DESPITE EVERYTHING you may have read, despite even some cosmetic improvements, the lengths to which the white South African government goes to keep itself in power and to stifle opposition overwhelm anyone used to the freedoms of the U.S. Constitution.

For example:

An article in the Sunday Express last month so outraged Prime Minister P.W. Botha that he called its publisher, Clive Kingsley, and gave him this primitive option: Either you apologize or I will close you down. The Sunday Express apologized . . . on the front page, convinced that Botha would and could carry out his threat.

In Soweto, the city of 1.6 million on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where all blacks must live (but can't own property), authorities have constructed only one outdoor basketball court; there is only one fire station and one movie theater and no old age homes (the government wants blacks to return to the "homelands" to die).

A black doctor and political leader, Nthato Motlana, has been refused land on which he would build (at his own expense) a clinic to treat blacks.

Black journalists consider jail a way of life, with solitary confinement routine, often without charges. One black newspaperman told me that after more than a year in solitary, he was put back with other prisoners, and all were shown a movie -- "All the President's Men." Another was photographed with me during the lunch, and he quickly rose from the table to speak to the (black) photographer. "I'm banned," he said, meaning that by government order he cannot talk to more than one person other than his wife at the same time, "and if that picture were published they'd put me back in jail." The film was destroyed.

It takes a 350-page book just to list all the laws which journalists must obey before they can be sure their stories will be printed.

CHIEF GATSHA BUTHELEZI is a smiling, quick-speaking man, with an ascot tucked into his dashiki shirt as he talks to visitors in his small, aircontitioned office in the new village of Ulundi, which is the capital of Kwazulu and an hour by air from Durban. Buthelezi is chief of the Zulus and president of Inkatha, the National Cultural Liberation Movement, with 200,000 dues-paying Zulu members. He could be prime minister of an "independent" Kwazulu tomorrow, if he went along with the South African government's plan for independent homelands, like Chief Daiser Matanzima of the Transkei.

Buthelezi sees himself as the leading (unjailes) black critic off South Africa, and the South African whites" best chance for meaningful negotiations.

Others see him as "a creature of Pretoria." Sally Motlana, the tough and graceful head of the Black Housewives' League in Soweto, said: "The whites pay his salary and buy him his Mercedes."

This is the thinking that puts Buthelezi in the middle of a minefield. If he really joins the opposition, he could well get banned and that would bring his cousin, the king, to power and the king would accept the South African government's offer of "independence." If he remains within the system, some blacks are going to think of him as an Uncle Tom.

THE FARMER'S NAME was Black, and he was white, one of only 250,000 whites among 6 million blacks in Rhodesia. His farm is only 20 kilometers outside Salisbury, more than 3,000 acres of beautiful, fertile soil, planted to corn, soybeans, and supporting more than 500 head of Hereford and Brahman cattle. At 67, his face is deeply tanned and lined, and he talks lovingly of his land as he drives us around the farm in his Datsun pickup truck. His father bought the farm for 800 pounds in 1902. The main house is now surrounded by a chain link fence, topped with barbed wire. A few months ago there was some machine-gunning late at night a few hundred yards from the living room, as guerrillas ran through the farm escaping from a raid nearby.

His hospitality is straightforward, like the answers to our questions. He employs 60 blacks and so supports 60 black families on the farm. He admires Ian Smith more than any man in the world. He wonders "what the hell America is up to "in southern Africa. And he asks a question:

"What's this fellow Pat Moynihan like? He seems to make more sense than anyone else you've more sense than anyone else you've got over there."

AT DINNER in Cape Town, the cabinet minister for communications and sports, a warm, friendly, attractive young man named Frederick W. de Klerk, was being hectored by South Africans like Helen Suzman, one of 1m Liberal members of Parliament (against 135 Nationalist members); Alan Hendrickse, leader of the Labor Party; Hassan Howa, leader of a group trying to intergrate South African sports, and Bishop Patrick Matolengwe. Suzman is white, Hendrickse is "colored," Howa is Asian and Matolengwe is black.

When the conversation turned to political prisoners, de Klerk turned it aside by asking about "the Torres case," a case which South African leaders apparently know more about than American editors. (Torres was a Vietnam veteran who was brutalized by Houston police and who was found dead in Buffalo Bayou. Three policemen were eventually arrested, convicted only of violating Torres' civil rights, and given minor sentences.)

SYBRAND VON NIEKIRK is the administrator of the Transvaal province of South Africa, and he is talking about the new Pretoria Opera House. Earlier he had been quoted as saying that the opera house would be for whites, not because blacks were black, but because blacks didn't like opera. They liked war chants.

"The publicity about that caused more mmusic than any opera house," he said with a smile.

Is the opera house going to be open to blacks?

"I don't like that word 'open'," it doesn't mean a thing, because the opposite is 'closed,'" he replies."The government has a policy that what cannot be duplicated for blacks must be shared. We cannot afford two opeara houses in Pretoria. So if there is to be an opera house, it has to serve all sections of Pretoria. But it cannot be the opear house for all. It wouldn't suit those people (blacks, colored and Indians) to have facilities in the white area. Everybody knows that's not possible. So, therefore, these people must have availability. You can say that the opera house will not be 'open' to them, but it will be 'available' to non-whites, but it will be for the whites."

Isnht that playing a semantic game?

"yes," von Niekirk says, matter-of-factly. "You have to."

A WISE MAN is talking in his Johannesburg garden. He is officially banned by the South African government despite his profession (a minister), despite his color (white) and despite his nationality (Afrikaans).

"I would trust this man with my life," a black leader has told us, and so he is asked for the ultimate answers.

"I try to seek a parallel in history where a whole community has so successfully suppressed ingormation that eventually led to its own downfall, and I cannot find a parallel."

Where does hope lie?

"I believe hope for South Africa lies in the black community," he answers solemnly. "The white community cannot help itself."