"We're afraid of the Commies. We've always feared our blacks: we're building up our defenses to fight off the rest of Africa as the whole continent closes in on us. And we're even running scared of the Americans now.

"Yet our government has the nerve to turn to the world and claim we're not afraid of anybody. Strikes you as kind of absurb, doesn't it, like you don't know where we stand."

The words were those of a young pilot for a Johannesburg charter company, made on a flight to the funeral of Steve Biko, the black nationalist leader who died in police detention three weeks ago.

Just where South Africa stands is the crucial question right now, one that most South Africans cannot answer - or are afraid to.

The young while pilot wanted to join the press group attending the Biko funeral. "We don't have much contact with them (blacks)," he said. "I'd like to see what it's all about," Finally he decided against it.

"The place will be crawling with SB (special branch police) and white faces will be carefully noticed, you can be sure. I'm not sure if it's worth the consequences. Whites just don't do that kind of thing here," he explained.

The situation reflects both the growing gap between black and white - symbolized by the death of a national black hero while being held by white-controlled police - and the divisions among whites.

South Africa has clearly reached a crisis point of unprecedented dimensions, with problems closing in rapidly on the white-minority government of Prime Minister John Vorster. Among them:

Unrest among blacks, which began more than 15 months ago, continues to erupt sporadically, but with incressing bitterness, in African townships throughout the country. More than 620 blacks and four whites have died during that period, and destruction totals many millions of dollars.

Urban terrorism has become a very real threat, according to Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger. Government officials have recently charged that bands of black nationalists are being trained for attacks on South African cities by the Marxist governments of Angola and Mozambique. An incident in downtown Johannesburg in June - when three armed Africans opened fire killing two white mechanics in a department store garage - jolted white South Africans even more than the unrest in black townships, pointing out their vulnerability as never before.

Black education in Soweto, Johannesburg's troubled black township, has virtually collapsed with a school boycott by 27,000 students and the resignations of almost 500 teachers. The issue: Scrapping black education, which is considered inferior by blacks in favor of a single national education system, identical for blacks and whites.

The majority of leaders from South Africa's nine homelands or tribal reserves have indicated that they will not accept independence for their territories.The ultimate aim of apartheid - separate development for separate races - is partitioning South Africa into one large white country and nine small. fragmented black mini-states. But most of the black homeland leaders, under the direction of Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, have said they want to remain part of South Africa, a country just as much theirs as the whites.

Behind these issues are deepening feelings of frustration, anger and fear. Blacks generally see no progress ahead, no significant reaction to their violent expressions of discontent. On the key issue of power-sharing. Parliament voted this year to introduce a community council system allowing blacks a bigger say in their own affairs.

In the end, however, those powers amounted to token involvement, such as garbage collection plans, management of recreational sites, and housing allocation. Soweto blacks reacted with a boycott, forming their own council - the Committee of Ten, made up of prominent black professionals - which is attempting to draw up plans for self-government.

Government officials have refused to negotiate with the committee despite the fact that the formation of the group could, in effect, be interpreted as a declaration that balcks will not demand integration in white areas - just as long as they can control their own black townships.

"This government must be batty," a white business executive explained. "Here you've got blacks saying they will accept their lot if, in exchange, they can have the authority to manage it. I can't believe the government isn't jumping at such a deal. They'll never get an offer like thus again." He shook his head.

Many whites appear to be experiencing the same frustrations and fears. Emigration figures continue to rise as whites become increasingly anxious about their future, always conscious of the fact that they are out-numbered more than four to one. One recent survey of white university students revealed that about 65 per cent want to leave South Africa permanently.

A black market has developed always an early indicator of nervousness, as whites try to build up accounts abroad in "safe currencies." An increase in suicides - which sociologists here attribute to tension and stress - has put South Africa among the top five countries in the world according to the Johannesburg Star.

White anxieties have been increased by the reaction abroad to the problems surrounding apartheid - manifested in both political and economic terms. Western governments are putting unprecendented pressure on South Africa, while foreign corporations and governments have cut backs on investments and loans. The hesitation could not have come at a worse time, as South Africa's unemployment - especially among blacks - continue to rise, its recession deepens and inflation soars.

A significant section of the business community, concerned with the sluggishness of the government in answering both the demands of blacks and the reaction abroad, united late last year to form the Urban Foundation, with the aim of bettering the living and working conditions of blacks.

Its current projects include short-term efforts, such as the collection of several tons of garbage accummulated in Soweto since the first riots, and long-term projects, such as vocational training for Africans and homeownership or improvement programs.

The moderate white opposition has not been as efficient in organizing a strong campaing, despite increasing anti-government noises. For the past year, the two major opposition parties have spent most of their time quibbling over reorganization, new platforms and new names.

In the end the only truly powerful elements in South Africa are within the ruling National Party, which has been in control for 29 years, and the conservative Calvinist Afrikaner community behind it. So far, they do not appear to be moving very far or very fast.

At a series of National Party congresses in August and September, a new constitution was introduced that would change the formula of government, but probably not the power structure. It all boils down to abandoning the Westminister system, now an all-white Parliament, in favor of three separate but unequal parliaments. A body representing 4.3 million whites would have 185 members: 2.3 million coloreds (mixed race) would have a 92-seat Parliament: and 750,000 Indians would have a 46-member body.

Each parliament would have a cabinet with a prime minister, but one executive president would ultimately have a right hold on the reins of power - and all three parliaments.

Officials argue that the new constitutions will bring in the two minorities - colored and Asians - who currently have no representation, while the blacks will have their own parliaments in their own tribal reserves.In other words, everyone would have a say in his own affairs.

The Vorster government is adamant that this is indeed The Answer: so adamant, that Vorster announced a nationwide election last month - one year and one half before it was scheduled - to test support for the new constitution and to prove to "meddling" outsiders just who has the support of the country's voters.

Some political analysts argued that the prime minister was attemtping to pull off a big election victory in order to insure his position and then move toward dramatic changes.

Other commentators see the Nov. 30 contest as merely a means of curtailing opposition outcries while continuing rigorously on the same course.

At this point it does not appear that the government will take the more moderate course, with meaningful changes acceptable to the outside would as the ultimate goal.

Over the past year there have been major squabbles within the cabinet over what are considered by many to be minor concessions: Multi-racial sport at all levels: the integration of private church-run schools: and the repeal of two acts particularly hated by blacks - the Immorality Act and the Mixed Marriages Act, both of which stipulate that relations across the color line are illegal.

What's more, the government has been cracking down, last year introducing the Internal Security Act, which allows detention without trial or recourse to a lawyer for up to one year. This year, Parliament passed the Criminal Procedures Act which permits, in effect, trial in total secrecy, including charging, trying convicting and sentencing.

The government has also cracked down on dissidents. There are frequent reports in The World. Johannesburg's black newspapers about parents whose children have been taken away, by security police and have since been unheard of despite inquiries at police stations.

The case of Steve Biko was the final straw for many blacks, who looked on him as the one voice of moderation able to bridge the growing gap between races. He founded the black conscioussness movement yet advocated non-violence in the push for change. Then he was detained by security police on Sept. 12 - the 21st detinee to die in 18 months.

The death of the young black leader even angered whites. The pro-government paper. The Citizen, lamented: "When will they ever learn?" referring to the government and its police force. Biko brought into focus the mounting fears of both whites and black.

The young pilot put it appropriately: "I wish I knew what all this meant, this trouble from blacks and the toughness in response. But I don't and it makes me nervous.

"I know we all want a place in South Africa. But I guess we're all so suspicious of each other that we don't want to share anything anymore. Its all or nothing. I'd like to think it'll all be ever someday and everybody'll be happy. But it doesn't look that way, does it?"