JOHANNESBURG -- Vindication,like revenge, is sweet. Five years ago the publishers of South Africa's most famous liberal newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, closed it down. They had never liked the vigor with which it exposed the iniquities of apartheid nor the heat this brought from the government, and when the paper began losing money, they contended it was because it was selling too many copies to blacks, who were of little value to advertisers, and too few to the wealthy whites.

Three years earlier, the publishers had dismissed me as editor for the same reason, and since that seemed not to have helped, they were taking the next step and shutting the paper down.

Last week it reopened. Or, more accurately, it was reincarnated with the launching in Johannesburg of a new newspaper called The Daily Mail, which is explicitly committed to the same traditions and journalistic principles and will be aiming at precisely the same multiracial readership.

The closing of the Rand Daily Mail in April 1985 caused an outcry among opponents of apartheid at home and abroad. In the words of Arthur Chaskalson, a leading civil rights lawyer who spoke at Wednesday's launch ceremony, it had become "a national institution" whose vigorous voice of dissent kept the spirit of democracy alive under an oppressive system.

It had passionate supporters as well as fervent enemies in this polarized society, and among its staff there was a quite extraordinary loyalty. The young staff members particularly were outraged by the decision to close the paper, with the result that a number of them got together to see if they could keep its tradition and name alive.

They pooled their redundancy pay, took a hat around town selling preference shares, and two months later from the paltry capital base of $25,000 and with a full-time staff of four launched a small paper of their own called the Weekly Mail. By the end of that year this improbable venture had a circulation of 10,000 -- modest but respectable in a country in which the big dailies sell between 50,000 and 200,000 -- and three years later it broke even commercially.

Despite constant harassment by the government, which closed it for a time in 1988, the Weekly Mail continued to grow, and by the end of 1989 it was selling more than 30,000 copies and operating on an annual turnover of $1.5 million. It has in itself become a small but valuable institution in the land.

Now their formula and abilities proven in the toughest of trials, the young publishers have raised money locally and abroad to launch a daily. It is an act of regeneration, performed by the youngest members of the staff, which I think is one of the most remarkable stories in the history of the newspaper business.

For me personally, last week's launch evoked a mixture of emotions -- vindication, joy, nostalgia, anger. It was wonderful to see old staff members gathered together again in the enterprise of reporting the South African story in its fullness. The two co-editors, Anton Harber, 31, and Irwin Manoim, 35, had invited me to write a column in the new paper to symbolize its link to the old one, and that was a great pleasure.

I could have wept when I read an extract from the last editorial of the dying paper reprinted on the wings of the young Phoenix. "Our final message is brief and simple: go in peace. Rooted in South Africa, committed for more than a quarter of a century to justice and prosperity for all, the Rand Daily Mail has never lost its unshakable belief that this country can be good and great ... "

And then I felt anger. Anger that only five years ago the newspaper's owners, who included some of the country's most eminent and supposedly forward-looking businessmen, could have felt there was no future for it because it was selling too many copies to blacks and too few to whites.

Looking at the multiracial coloration of just about every advertisement one sees on South African television today, how could they have been so out of touch with the trend of events as to suppose that a multiracial readership could never be viable here? How could they have deprived South Africa of its most vigorous democratic voice just when everything it had stood for was about to be vindicated and when the country would most need its kind of comprehensive reporting across the color line?

And then I felt alarm. Alarm at the reflection this cast on the political acumen of some of the country's business leaders that their misreading of the times should be so glaringly shown up by the most junior members of the editorial staff.

Just 12 months ago Harry Oppenheimer, elder statesman of the giant Anglo American Corp. and the prince of South Africa's business community, whose company was the ultimate owner of the Rand Daily Mail and who must himself have approved its closure, gave as one of the reasons for shutting it down that it was "addressing itself to too distant a future."

How does that sound today as South Africa enters its decade of negotiation and transition?

The problem goes back a long way. It is the problem not only of the business community but more generally of the English-speaking community, who make up 40 percent of the white population. It is a community that dropped out of politics generations ago, when it found it could no longer call the shots as Afrikaner nationalism began to mobilize its majority in the white community.

It has not had a political leader since Cecil John Rhodes at the turn of the century. For a time it left things to Jan Smuts, the Afrikaner Prime Minister who worked for reconciliation with the whites of British descent after the Boer War, but when he was defeated in 1948 the English-speakers dropped out of politics altogether and concentrated on making their way in business.

As they felt themselves to be politically impotent, their sense of politics atrophied through lack of use.

Now that is going to have to change, and fast. The challenges of adjusting to the new South Africa in this grossly unequal society are going to hit business every bit as hard as the politicians. Much as English-speakers have despised them over the years, President Frederik W. de Klerk and his Afrikaner ministers are in some ways better equipped to cope than they are.

The writer is a special correspondent for The Washington Post.