JOHANNESBURG -- Police say the prisoner died while trying to escape. The deceased's relatives complain that there were bruises and abrasions all over the body. The authorities have promised to investigate. Etc. etc. It could be almost anywhere in the world. But the story was in the Johannesburg Weekly Mail last month, and this detail caught my eye: "Police told Maphumulo's attorneys that he had drowned in the swimming pool at Protea police station." In South Africa, even the police stations have swimming pools.

In his recent memoir, "My Traitor's Heart," South African journalist Rian Malan writes: "Anywhere else in the world, save perhaps the United States, a blue-collar worker would consider himself terribly lucky to be floating face up in cool water under a hot blue sky in a country garden. In South Africa, however, such an experience was a white man's virtual birthright." Even in the United States, though, it's a rare blue-collar worker who has a country house and swimming pool.

High-minded white South Africans love to tell you, no doubt correctly, what a failure apartheid has been as an economic system. But apartheid enabled many, many whites to enjoy a bigger piece of that smaller pie. The exclusion of the black majority from the best jobs and lands, the assured pool of servants and cheap labor and so on have given middle-class whites a lifestyle that free-market forces, wonderful as they are, could not duplicate.

Politically, there are reasons for optimism. On Friday, President F. W. de Klerk announced that his government would repeal the last pillars of legal apartheid. The government and the African National Congress have agreed to a multiparty conference as the next stage in devising a new constitution. The ANC's Nelson Mandela and his Inkatha rival, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, have kissed and made up.

But the real trauma is going to be economic. Everyone recognizes that any political solution will create powerful economic expectations among blacks. What good is freedom without electricity and plumbing? Where is the payoff for their decades of struggle? Meanwhile, even liberal whites seem resigned to the notion that the economy will shrink, not grow, when the blacks take over. They see the ANC's present internal chaos as a harbinger of what the whole country will be like. "African time," said one businessman with a smile and a shrug when I mentioned that a black pol had been very late for an appointment.

Two questions get muddled in discussing new economic arrangements for South Africa. One is how to create growth; the other is how to share the goodies. In fact, the growth question is largely settled. Those who believe that blacks will bungle any economic system are beyond consolation, but there's little need to fear that South Africa's future leaders will choose the wrong system. It's a cliche' in South Africa that the country is lucky the death of apartheid coincided with the collapse of communism. The grim experience of African socialism is also duly noted.

But that doesn't settle the issue. Even the most devoted believer in free-market capitalism as a creator of wealth would have a hard time looking at South Africa and saying: Fine, let's start tomorrow with a free market and forget about who's got what at the moment. Nowhere else in the world do so much Western-style affluence and Third-World poverty exist side-by-side. And this disparity was a deliberate creation of the government. The about-to-be-repealed Group Areas Act, to take just one example, forcibly removed 3.5 million black people from "white" areas and dumped them in arid "homelands." Should these people be satisfied that from now on it's a level playing field?

Growth alone won't provide enough resources to do justice to the black majority without impinging on the prosperity of the white minority. True enough, any serious exercise in redistribution will itself discourage economic growth. But to concede that point doesn't put redistribution beyond bounds. Blacks, like whites, are entitled to think of the slices as well as the pie.

How much white prosperity will be impinged upon is the biggest unresolved political question. Hard economics -- who gets what -- lies behind much of the theoretical debate about the shape of the new constitution. Whites want guarantees against nationalization, redistribution and other statist meddling. This passion for hands-off government is as recent in economics as in civil liberties. The present South African economy is dominated by state industries and government-sanctioned cartels.

Over a drink at a fancy hotel in a Johannesburg suburb called Sandton, I asked Saki Macozoma of the ANC whether Harry Oppenheimer, head of the giant Anglo-American conglomerate, ought to fear majority rule. He said, "People at the level of Harry Oppenheimer needn't be concerned in any event. The more important question is: Will a person with a middle-class job and a maid and a pool lose that? Yes, they will have to lose some of that, because we don't have the resources. ... People say, 'moderate the expectations of your people.' I say, we will moderate our expectations pari passu {in step} with Sandton. I can't say to people in Soweto, forget about running water while people in Sandton have two German cars." A pretty good answer, I thought.