When this black township on the outskirts of South Africa's largest city went up in flames two weekends ago, its agony was all but invisible on world television screens.

Police and soldiers sealed off the riot zone and strictly enforced the government's emergency ban on television, photographic and radio coverage of unrest in designated areas. By last Tuesday, the fourth day of violence that claimed at least 22 lives, a police spokesman was contending that even reporters' notebooks were banned within telephoto range of the township.

At least 20 journalists who ventured near the township were taken into custody, some at gunpoint, and in some cases their film and cameras were confiscated. Two photographers arrested outside police lines were charged with violating the ban -- and face up to 10 years in jail and a $10,000 fine if convicted.

As a result, CBS, ABC and NBC television crews were reduced to long shots of the township from a distant hill -- shots that technically violated the ban -- or to shots of correspondents describing what they had seen from the hill. The British Broadcasting Corp. largely used footage from another township.

"If we'd been there it would have been a hell of a story," said CBS correspondent Allen Pizzey. "But we weren't, so it wasn't."

Three months after it was promulgated, South Africa's emergency press ban has helped the white-minority government get pictures of unrest off both the air and the front page. The television images that dominated the nightly news last summer and helped crystallize American anger against South Africa have all but disappeared, replaced by something less frequent and far less powerful.

The result has not reduced the level of violence here -- November and January had two of the highest death tolls in 18 months of unrest -- but it has helped give South Africa something of a respite from the intense world attention and opprobrium it incurred last year, and officials appear very satisfied.

David Steward, chief of the government's new Bureau of Information, calls the ban "reasonably successful . . . the purpose was not to stop the flow of information from South Africa but to stop the flow of highly emotive, sensational coverage from riot areas. The reporting last year created a completely unbalanced picture of the situation."

Although the ban contributes to an image of South Africa as a closed society that seeks to tightly control information, many here believe it is a price worth paying.

"Something had to be done," said Carl Noffke, former press spokesman for the South African Embassy in Washington and now director of the American Studies Institute at Rand Afrikaans University. "Obviously there is a price, but at present that price is lower than the horrible image that nightly prominence given to the rioting created."

The success of the ban can be measured in air time. Last August the three U.S. networks broadcast more than 60 stories from South Africa on the evening news. In November, that figure dropped to 20. Last month, according to CBS southern Africa bureau manager Bill Mutschmann, the network ran a combined total of only 14 spots on the morning and evening news.

Other factors have contributed in the receding of South Africa as the world's top news story. The unrest and the government's tough response peaked in July and August -- traditional dog days of the news business -- when there was little other news to compete. The numbing repetition of the unrest, which has now claimed more than 1,100 lives, gradually has lessened interest.

South Africa has come a long way from 20 years ago when few foreign journalists were allowed in the country and expulsions were a regular feature of the political landscape. Now the government says it has accredited more than 170 foreign journalists -- but official hostility or, at best, ambivalence remains.

President Pieter W. Botha in his landmark Durban speech last August asked how it was that reporters and cameramen were always at the scene when violence occurred. And he posed a direct and pointed question to the press: "Whose interests do you serve -- those of South Africa or those of revolutionary elements? South Africa must know -- our life is at stake."

On Nov. 2, South Africa adopted its new press policy. Calling camera coverage "a catalyst to further violence," Law and Order Minister Louis Le Grange issued an order prohibiting films, photographs and sound recordings of unrest in designated emergency areas. All journalists, including newspaper reporters, were ordered to report to the police before entering areas of unrest.

In Soweto, the country's largest black urban center, an even stricter ban had already been announced by the local police commissioner barring all nonresidents from the area and prohibiting coverage of any unrest-related news events.

The net effect for journalists was to make the already difficult job of covering South Africa's segregated townships even tougher. For months journalists had dodged police patrols while traveling through townships for fear of being stopped and ordered to leave. Some had been arrested and had their cameras and film seized. A few had even been shot at. But now police had the full force of the law behind them.

While some police once showed flexibility, since November they routinely have refused access to unrest areas. Cameramen who violate the ban by entering a proscribed area face the dilemma of whether to publish their photos or footage, since publication is also a violation. So many have been arrested that Times of London correspondent Michael Hornsby, vice chairman of the Foreign Correspondents Association here, says, "We lost track of the numbers long ago." CBS, which two years ago spent less than $100 on legal fees, now keeps high-priced legal firms on retainer in each of the three major cities covered under the emergency regulations.

The results were evident a few weeks after the ban took effect at Mamelodi outside Pretoria, when 13 blacks died during a peaceful protest march that police broke up, and at Queenstown, where 14 were shot dead in one night. The areas were sealed off, reporters and cameras shut out and incidents that several months earlier might have triggered international outrage, were largely ignored.

It was not for lack of trying on the part of some crews. A CBS team chartered an airplane and flew over Mamelodi, but the pilot was radioed and ordered to land by police. After that a circular went out warning charter companies that the airspace over unrest areas was just as off limits as the ground itself.

Over the years South African newspapers have had to cope with a set of legal restrictions far tougher than anything the foreign press faces here. But the ban has affected them as well.

"It's made a very dramatic difference for us, especially in our picture coverage," says Tony Weaver, a reporter for the Cape Times, one of the country's most energetic dailies. "From the end of August until the press ban, we had a front-page picture and two or three inside on unrest every single day. From the day after, all we've carried is soft stuff."

Weaver says reporters have been forced to practice what he calls "guerrilla journalism." By that he means, "When we enter a township, we ditch our cars as soon as possible. We move on foot from house to house. Often we don't even bother sending photographers." Even when the papers do have photos, they often choose not to run them -- to avoid violating the new law.

On Feb. 17 and 18, when the Alexandra story was at its peak, The Johannesburg Star carried no photos of the unrest. Instead, the paper's front page featured photos of white little girls promoting festivals at two shopping malls in the all-white suburbs -- only minutes from Alexandra, where children of similar age but different skin color were being shot at.