It is just three months since the South African government lifted the state of emergency it declared in July 1985. The new state of emergency announced last week is even more Draconian and blankets the entire country.

Obviously, the South African government has failed to fulfill the elementary duty of any government -- that is, to maintain law and order, sound administration and a stable society. This new emergency demonstrates its inability to rule.

For the beleaguered whites of South Africa, order means iron-fisted oppression, and law means measures to crush dissent and protest.

Why has the state of emergency been delclared now -- why on this weekend?

Ten years ago Soweto's schoolchildren forever shattered the myth of white invincibility. They marched in protest to Orlando Stadium, where they were confronted by police who fired on them, killing a 13-year-old boy and wounding scores of others. Fierce rioting erupted throughout Soweto, and police reinforcements could not subdue these youngsters. Municipal property was torched, and rioting and burning escalated. The fires sparked in Soweto blazed throughout the country and have never been put out.

Why did the children decide to "burn apartheid"?

The flashpoint was a government decision to change the medium of instruction in the schools from English to Afrikaans -- a language spoken nowhere else in the world. What little education blacks acquired was of an inferior nature. In the words of the prime minister, blacks should be educated "to take their place in society as hewers of wood and drawers of water." When they were also told that this meager education was to be given in the language of their oppressors, that was all that was needed to spark the revolt.

The student leaders were dedicated, intelligent, militant young activists. They were fearless and committed and faced police guns, armored vehicles and tear gas with sticks and stones. They were determined to face death rather than live their lives under apartheid.

The young children and adolescents despised their elders for submitting too long to the apartheid system. The "reasoned arguments" of their parents and teachers had brought no results, and, in fact, conditions had deteriorated. Respect for white authority and those collaborating with it was lost. Local leaders were disregarded.

Ten years later, a new generation has been inspired by those who began "the struggle for liberation." Now that struggle is more intense. Every clash with the police deepens the gulf between the people. Hatred, fear and violence spread, and more and more people are being killed.

At Crossroads, the shantytown in the Cape, white authorities have shown their cunning and ruthless determination to subdue all resistance. Black collaborators, now known as vigilantes, are pitted, by the police, against the militants. The police say "the fathers" are fighting "the comrades" -- the disrespectful children. But only when "the comrades" have the advantage do the police move in with their tear gas and their weapons, driving the militants back. Shacks are burned down, people's few possessions are scattered, and more hatred and more violence is bred. Is Crossroads the new pattern for police maintenance of law and order in South Africa?

South African whites have always viewed themselves as America's outpost and bulwark against communism in Africa, and Americans have always supported white regimes there. If support for the white minority regime continues, America's credibility with the world will suffer, its stature in the Asian and African world will be diminished, and most important, the unity and harmony of the nation will be threatened.

Furthermore, black resistance in South Africa and the liberation movements are increasingly supported, armed and trained by the Russians and East Europeans. America has never supported these freedom fighters in their struggle, and it would not welcome their successful revolution. Nevertheless, their struggle is for fundamental human rights and self-determination, and if the United States were to recognize this, its influence in the whole continent and the Third World would be enormously increased.

The Afrikaners are not a monolithic group and never have been. During their ascendancy to political power, divisions between the extremists and the realists were not marked. Since the 1960s, there has been growing division. Now, with the situation reaching crisis proportions, the rift is deepening.

At all times, Afrikaner and English South Africans have jealously guarded their privileges and profits provided by apartheid. Whites make up only 16 percent of the population of South Africa, and at least half of them will accept change only when it becomes absolutely necessary. Until then, they will make every effort to hold on to as many privileges and as much profit as possible. In the end, they will negotiate to save as much as they can.

The other half, who are obdurate and die-hard racists, will resist all change, and they present a real danger. They will make every effort to gain full control of the army and the police. Using that strength, they could then wage a very bloody civil war. At first, they could achieve some limited success. However, in a land as large as South Africa (and Namibia), there are not enough adult whites to govern the country, manage the economy and conduct a war. This group cannot be permitted to hold the land and its people to ransom.

The irony of apartheid is that South Africa is, in reality, the most integrated state in all of Africa, and the close cooperation of blacks and whites is absolutely essential for the functioning of the society. Leaders of the African National Congress, such as Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, have always been farsighted enough to accept this. All insist that apartheid, like slavery, cannot be reformed. It must be abolished.

America must discard the failed policies of the past and present and recognize that the situation in South Africa is worse than it has ever been. Violence, disorder and disruption escalate daily. The Terrorism Act gives police the license to arrest and detain without any cause. Police and army shooting is indiscriminate; the monthly death toll is now over 100. Laws permit indefinite solitary confinement and condone police brutality and torture. Incidents of violence by vigilantes and their opponents are on the rise. The lawlessness and disorder in the black urban areas is spreading to the remote rural areas.

South Africans have endured strong criticism for 40 years. They have borne this with fortitude as long as no effective action has been taken to bring about real change. Their response has been to make hollow promises and meaningless offers of consultation. Ten years ago, Prime Minister John Vorster assured Vice President Walter Mondale that he would be surprised at the changes made "within the next six months." Last year, President P. W. Botha assured senior American officials that real change was coming. In fact, the laws underpinning apartheid remain intact and are enforced daily.

Enfranchisement is the key to liberty in South Africa. What is needed is a national convention, representing all the people of South Africa. All political leaders must be unconditionally freed, all restrictions on banned persons lifted and exiles allowed to return.

The convention must adopt a new constitution. It will be an African one, created by the black and white African participants. Once America has fostered this move, it will be in a position to influence, but not in any way impose, the adoption of certain ideas. It could urge the acceptance of a Bill of Rights and the recognition of the fundamental freedoms and human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rule of law should govern.

The United States could urge that minority rights be protected to avoid the tyranny of the majority. All present racist and security legislation must be repealed so that no future government could use those awful provisions to recreate the horrors of the present.

Such a peaceful, lawful and constitutional road is still open. Further violence and a long and bloody civil war can be avoided. However, we must act without delay.

The pressure needed to bring this about is an act of Congress imposing comprehensive sanctions on South Africa. This will be a real and effective threat to continued white rule, for South African whites fear sanctions more than anything else. They are confident that their army and police can contain resistance. But sanctions, imposed by their allies, seriously threaten the most important elements of apartheid -- the profits and privileges so long enjoyed. Trade and oil supplies are vital to the South African economy, as are the liberal loans.

Some people oppose sanctions on the grounds that blacks would be hurt the most, but Africans have replied that apartheid rule hurts them more. Others are opposed on the grounds that sanctions are never fully effective. The real effect on white South Africans will be considerable and will provide the necessary impetus for them finally to opt for change.

Again, some will say that there is movement for change, so why not await further developments? If you are a young African, the answer is that that change has been negligible and that 325 years of white domination is enough. Blacks might well ask those in no great hurry to change places with them for a month.

Alan Paton had the black protagonist in "Cry the Beloved Country" say, "there is one great fear in our hearts, that one day when they have turned to loving, they will find that we have turned to hating."

That day is not yet here, and there is still time for a truly democratic and nonracial society to emerge from the chaos that is enveloping South Africa. But the United States must realize that the time for equivocation, compromise and hypocrisy is past. If it acts now, forthrightly and with determination, America will, once again, lead the world in a stand for justice and peace.