It seems a fair question to ask a man who has won the Nobel Prize for peace. Why, in a country where Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are so greatly admired, has there been no real nonviolent movement for black rights?

"Well," says Desmond Tutu, Anglican bishop of Johannesburg and arguably the most recognized South African face in the world, "you know the ANC (African National Congress) was nonviolent, from 1912 to 1960, when Albert Luthuli won the Peace Prize. But it was never able to make a dent at all in the government's repressive policies.

"But as to nonviolence as a strategic weapon, I have a theory. Nonviolence presupposes a minimum moral level. And when that minimum moral level does not operate, I don't think nonviolence can succeed.

"Gandhi was able to appeal to a constituency in Britain that would be aghast at the things they saw the British troops doing. Similarly in the United States, Martin Luther King knew that there would be a constituency that would be outraged by the spectacle of bullwhips and police dogs and that sort of thing being used against people who were demonstrating peacefully. So there was a moral revulsion that happened in both the U.S. and Britain. I don't see that happening here."

Is this man of peace, who begins the interview by asking his visitor to join him in prayer, suggesting that change will come to South Africa only after massive violence and destruction?

"You put your question very well, because you are not saying violent or nonviolent, but only how much violence. The situation here is intrinsically violent, with the violence being basically the violence of apartheid. What we are really asking is whether we can keep the level of violence within manageable proportions, keep down the number of deaths and keep as low as possible the destruction of property.

"What chance do we have of doing that? In many ways, it is going to depend on what the international community is prepared to do. You have seen just what a disaster 'constructive engagement' has turned out to be. Because the West has refused to take effective action is one of the reasons we are where we are.

"If the South African government did not believe -- and believe rightly -- that it would almost always be protected from the consequences of its intransigence and quite vicious actions, it wouldn't go on doing what it's doing. Look at the audacity that they have of constantly making incursions into Angola, knowing full well that they will get the backing of the United States, because the Reagan administration has the same interests as South Africa has. They want to back UNITA, because they are opposed to what they believe is a Marxist government, and any Marxist government must bite the dust, and you can use any method to accomplish that.

"I mean, isn't it incredible that your president and your secretary of state can publicly discuss giving aid to UNITA, and whether the aid should be covert or overt? And what is the aid for? To assist a dissident group which is seeking to overthrow a government which seems to have been elected in free elections. And then when we say to them, 'Why don't you want to assist us?' They say, 'No, the ANC is a terrorist organization, and we don't support terrorists.' Well, what is UNITA in the eyes of the vast majority of the people of Angola?

"But that isn't all. The South African government knows that it can ride roughshod over anybody as long as it says, 'We are anticommunist.'

The government is saying something else these days. It is saying that apartheid is morally, politically and pragmatically dead. Is it possible that at last they mean it?

"Being a Christian," Tutu smiles, "I assume that you are a saint until you are conclusively proven a rogue. But when you look at performance, they have been very long on words and very, very short on matching actions. The victims of apartheid have not been aware of any significant changes. They have overturned the mixed marriages act, which I agree is some considerable relief for those caught up in that mesh. But they haven't moved on 'group areas' (the system whereby every foot of South African soil is assigned to a single ethnic group); they still provide us with inferior, discriminatory education. There were 160,000 arrests just last year on pass law offenses. They tell you we are going to have common citizenship and, just when you get excited, then they tell you, actually, no, it does not involve political power. Well, what is citizenship if it does not mean fundamentally having the vote?

"We have a government that is a past master in semantic games."

Is the current talk of federation, or a commonwealth of ethnic states, or some way of sharing the geography -- and presumably the political power -- of this beautiful land another of those semantic games?

"They still do not want to learn that there is no way to solve the crisis of our land if they keep wanting to impose solutions unilaterally."

And yet Bishop Tutu feels certain that change -- fundamental change -- will come to this country.

"I am slightly more cautious now than I was a few years ago when I gave precise timetables, but I have no doubt at all that we will have genuine majority rule, which is not the same thing as black majority rule, and soon."

But what of the thing I've heard from whites a dozen times in a matter of a few days: that majority rule will mean a massive struggle -- possibly armed conflict -- between the huge Xhosa and Zulu tribes, while the smaller tribes remain as powerless as now?

"That," says Tutu, smiling again, 'is a figment of their overexcited imagination."

And what is Bishop Tutu's tribe?

Now he laughs out loud. "You see what I mean? I am Xhosa, though my mother is Tswana. What does that make me? It is the government that wants to accentuate tribalism.

"The ANC embraces all tribal groups, so that at one time its president general was Xhosa, at another time Zulu, at another time Tswana. How do you explain that except by the fact that our people put great store by detrib the white man wants to project as a problem, as a way of forestalling the solution."

"But," he says again, before climbing into his purple cassock to rush off to a service somewhere or other in his sprawling archdiocese, "it will come. And soon."