Seven years ago, a tiny clique of senior South Afican officials launched a covert "war" to counter what they perceived as a propaganda "onslaught" against their isolated country by those who oppose its racially based policy of apartheid. The metamorphosis of that secret campaign into South Africa's worst political scandal - a scandal that now threatens the very fortress it was meant to defend - is the story of what has come to be known here as "Muldergate."

Wrongdoings already uncovered in the scandal, and others - possibly even murder - that are persistently rumored to be part of it, make the initial crime of Watergate pale by comparison.

The domestic implications are certain to be far-reaching, primarily because of the effect the scandal is having on the 2.6 million Afrikaners who dominate the country's government. Revelations in the scandal have buffeted their sense of rectitude and unquestioning respect for authority.

The scandal has also taken its toll on the ruling National Party, the vehicle of the Afrikaners' power. It has already seriously discredited the administration of former prime minister John Vorster, forcing three of his top officials to resign and leaving a shadow of suspicion over his head. It contributed to th change in party leadership as Pieter Botha succeeded Vorster and it may yet result in a more drastic shift in the party's hierarchy in which conservatives could redouble their strength.

All these changes have left disgruntled and dissatisfied factions in a party whose unity was ripe for fracturing. Some observers say "Mauldergate" has sown the grounds for a split in the party, a development Afrikaners know will cost them the political dominance that they have carefully built up since the party came to power in 1948. Many see this prospect, however, as the opportunity for real and meaningful change in South Africa's explosive racial situation.

In years to come, "Muldergate" will also surely be seen as a benchmark in South African press freedom. Despite the many restrictions against them, including the right of the government to close them down, newspapers, with the English language press in the lead, have forged ahead with disclosures on all aspects of the scandal.

So far, the papers have received unexpected support form the courts on two occasions when the government tried to stop them from publishing versions of the scandal at variance with the official one. But on the other side of the balance, the government has introduced in Parliament two bills that further erode press rights. Not until the scandal has run its course will it be known whether this was a Custer's Las Stand for the press or the crossing of a Ubicon to a position of greater freedom.

"Rules Don't Apply"

THINGS BEGAN to go wrong for the government's secret propaganda war just over a year ago when the Johannesburg Sunday Express splashed a story about a government-paid trip to the Indian Ocean Island-nation of the Seychelles by the flamboyant secretary of iinformation, Eschel Rhoodie, and a group of 10 friends. The story followed press leaks about an in-house audit of the department which criticized "extravagen travel" by some officials.

Under pressure to explain, Rhoodie lashed out at the auditor for his meddling, revealed the existence of a secret fund in his department for pursuing "sensitive and even highly secret operations" and said the fund was controlled by an informal cabinet committee of three.

Prime Minister Vorster took responsibility for allocating the secret funds to the Information Department, an act that government probers ruled a technical violation of his constitutional prerogatives. He explained he had done so "in the highest nation interest . . . to assist in a delicate and unconventional way in combating the total onslaught against South Africa. The purpose was to withstand the subversion of our country's good image and stability." Significantly, Vorster did not take responsibility for how the funds was used.

Cornelius (Connie) Mulder, then minister of information, chimed in at the time that "when the survival of South Africa is at stake, rules don't apply."

As the government stonewalled on details of the secret accounts, journalists' investigations zeroed in one a morning English-language tabloid called The Citizen. The paper was an obvious mouthpiece for the Information Department and a direct competitor to the main opposition paper, the Rand Daily Mail. Mulder stood up in Parliament and declared that no government money was going into The Citizen.

"Project Annemarie"

THE NEXT BREAK came in September, after Vorster's retirement, when the prospect of Mulder winning a three-cornered race for the prime ministership, and perhaps a guilty conscience, got the better of a Pretorian lawyer, Retief van Rooyen, who had participated in one of the Information Department's secret projects, codenamed "Annemarie" - the covert financing of The Citizen.

Van Rooyen spilled the beans, first to some cabinet ministers and then to Judge Anton Mostert, who was investigating currency exchange controls violations. The lawyer's disclosures sent enough ripples through the 172-member National Party caucus to cost Mulder the post by 24 votes.

The new prime minister, Botha, was immediately confronted by an impatient Mostert, eager to get some action against Information Department officials for their currency manipulations. When Botha, like Vorster before him, tried to thwart Mostert's efforts, the judge gave the press the documentation they needed to write the story they knew to be factual, but until then could not prove on paper. "It's all true," the Daily Mail shouted as it exposed Project Annemarie.

Botha hit back at Mostert by dissolving his one-man Commission of Inquiry. In an effort to contain further disclosures and repercussions of the scandal, Botha then appointed a handpicked committee of three judges headed by Rudolph Erasmus to investigate the whole affair.

In a preliminary report in December, the Erasmus commission revealed that between 1974 and 1979, $73 million was secretly moved to the Information Department from the other ministries to finance a secret "five-year plan" aimed at "projecting a true image" of South Africa and of "countering hostile attacks from abroad."

Half that money went into running The Citizen. That project was condemned by the probers as a misuse of government funds for party political purposes. (The hardy newspaper came out at the time with one of its best headlines: "Citizen Featured in Probe.")

The commission said it would not bi in the best interest of the country to reveal all the 180 secret projects that made up the propaganda campaign, about 50 of which are continuing, so no explanation was given for how the other $37 million was spent. But the commission did disclose some projects that were "terminated" and some financial abuses for which it recommended criminal prosecution.

Rhoodie vs. Vorster

WHEN the Erasmus panel began to separate the sheep from the goats in allocating responsibility for these financial abuses and demonstrations of poor judgement, the scandal entered a new phase dominiated by the question, "Has there been a coverup?" Ever since the commission blamed Rhoodie, Mulder and the country's former intelligence chief, Hendrik van den Bergh, for the malpractices and for failing to keep Vorster and the cabinet informed of their activities, the government has waged a battle against the three "scapegoats," as they call themselves, who want to tell their side.

Van den Bergh labeled the report "a big farce," challenging the government to bring him to court for this contempt. The government refused to prosecute and tooke away his passport, to the amusement of the country's anti-apartheid critics, who were often subjected to the same treatment by the former security police chief's men.

Mulder retreated into a sulky silence but privately calls the Erasmus report a coverup and vosw he will make a political comeback. The government responded by forcing him out of his parliamentary seat (after his resignation from the cabinet) and by issuing a behind-the-scenes ultimatum that he shut up or put up-that is, quit the party.

Rhoodie, as before, talked.

In a series of interviews with the opposition Rand Daily Mail - the paper he had tried to buy and then to "counter" through The Citizen - Rhoodie claimed that Vorster knew about every project, including The Citizen, and that Vorster had sanctioned the use of bribery as part of the covert propaganda campaign.

From his hideout in Europe, Rhoodie, also charged that Botha helped plan two projects similar to The Citizen scheme for whch Rhoodie was condemned in the Erasmus report. He also accused Finance Minister Owen Horwood of knowing about The Citizen since its inception and other ministers of knowing about it long before they have admitted.

The governmenths response to Rhoodie was a bit more telling. It withdrew his passport and charged him with theft and fraud. But the government also has asked the Erasmus commission, which is still sitting, to take another look into whether any cabinet minister knew of "irregularities" in the Information Department earlier than he has acknowledged. It is the first admission by the Botha government that the Erasmus report left much unsaid.

Rumors of a Murder

THE NEW FINDINGS of the commission could spell trouble for Botha, since he has promised Parliament that if any of his ministers knew of The Citizen or other irregularities he would resign and call an election. The National Party would never be defeated at the polls but there is a danger that if Botha is sullied enough directly or by implication in either the scandal or a coverup, he may be forced to step down as party leader, opening the way for archconservative Andries Treurnicht to step in.

Meanwhile, the commission is also continuing its investigation into other aspects of the scandal. Though it refuses to say exactly what is is probing, the possibilities are numerous and could involve corruption far exceeding what has already been revealed.

Most serious of all is the persistent rumor that the murders of a National Party politician and his wife are connected to the Information Departmenths activities.

The police appear stymied by the double murder of Robert and Jeanne-Cora Smit, who were shot and stabbed in their suburban home outside Johannesburg in November 1977. Rumors abound, though no proof has been offered, that Smit was killed either because he knew of corruption in high places or because of the displeasure of a non-South African partner in some of the Information Department's shady financial deals.

Clearly, "Muldergate" has a long way to go. But it has already pointed out the dangers of allowing officials unfetered access to millions of tax dollars, which they could use with complete unaccountability to anyone, protected by a shell of secrecy.

But the most important lesson of "Muldergate" goes deeper. It is that white South Africa would not have needed such a costly covert propaganda war, which led to the scandal, if it had not confused its foe and misdefined its war. The lesson of "Muldergate" is that the real enemy of white South Africa - fear of meaningful political change away from apartheld - lies within. CAPTION: Picture, Connie Mulder: charges coverup.