Americans are having an attack of the flutters in contemplating Nelson Mandela's views on violence. He summons us to support our own historical standards guiding the use of force for political goals. But in fact the question is more complicated than that: it concerns finally not just the role of ''armed struggle'' in seeing out apartheid but the place of force in a new order. With the end of apartheid no longer appearing remote, the question moves from the theoretical to the immediate, and we come under fresh pressure to work it through.
To the abstract right -- as distinguished from the tactical utility -- of using force against apartheid, there can be no serious challenge. Apartheid is the institutionalized embodiment of violence by the state to enforce a detestable racial and social order. As Mandela memorably reminded us, until now the system has permitted no alternative to the practice of violent opposition, and the system is still intact, though it is in a transitional phase. In earlier and immeasurably less onerous circumstances, the American colonists had no difficulty finding a principled rationale to take up arms against British rule.
In this light, there is an irrelevancy and even a measure of offense to the appeal President Bush made to Mandela in greeting him at the White House. ''I call on all elements in South African society to renounce the use of violence and armed struggle,'' Bush said -- as though the means available to the two side were equal and as though one side's prior and pervasive violence had not been entirely responsible for the other's feeble and spotty response. He spoke also without even indirect acknowledgment that the ANC had turned to force only after its political and diplomatic appeals -- including appeals to the United States -- had gone nowhere.
In fact, ''armed struggle'' denotes a black-on-white Marxist insurgency of the sort that the ANC mounted to considerable political effect but to no particular military effect in the 1970s, and that superior South African force, wile and diplomacy all but eliminated in the 1980s. This is how the police could report a ''drastic decrease'' in terrorist incidents last fall. ''Armed struggle'' has since been little more than a slogan doubly wielded -- by the ANC to keep solidarity with its militants and to use now as a bargaining counter and by the ANC's critics to depict the organization as being still beyond the pale.
Americans urge ''peaceful change'' in South Africa on the American model, and we are right to, notwithstanding Mandela's reminder that the access to law that ran in our civil rights period does not run in South Africa. We believe in the possibility of political and racial accommodation. The spectacle of further death and suffering troubles us and, perhaps even more, so does the specter of race war.
Others can be forgiven for noting, however, the current or recent places (not to speak of earlier places) where we have rejected ''peaceful change'': Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, Panama. To pass by this inconsistency makes us appear hypocritical and, to some, racist.
Some forms of violence in South Africa catch our special attention: not just police reprisals or terrorism involving the occasional white victim but ''necklacing'' and other forms of the shocking black-on-black violence now common in Natal Province. Here a damaging suspicion lingers that in the ANC hierarchy, though not in the mind of Mandela himself, there is comfort and perhaps even encouragement for such conduct. Some ANC members and supporters might argue that anything is acceptable in the name of the cause, but this is against all decency and Mandela obviously realizes it is a problem for the movement.
It suggests, of course, that the ANC might be tempted to use some of the same violence and conspiracy against its political rivals that it has used or at least approved (when it was too weak to use) against its apartheid oppressors. That some of this rough stuff already goes on provides a heavy drag on the approval and status that many Americans are prepared to bestow on the ANC.
The American government and segments of public opinion are now engaged in inducing Mandela to say a certain set of words of renunciation of violence in order to make him more worthy of our moral and official favor. Fine, but we should be no less ready to hold up similar hoops for the South African government and to take into account the threat of violence that blacks face from white renegade elements resistant to the de Klerk government's openness to a negotiated constitutional settlement.