"If anything happens to people like myself to silence our voice in this matter [the death of Steve Biko], I ask the hundreds of thousands of South Africans . . . who feel as we do to insure that such a silencing would not succeed in diminishing the chorus of demands for justice but would rather add to it in volume and intensity ."

Message to My Fellow Citizens, Donald Woods, East London Daily Dispatch, Oct, 7.

South Africa's most outspoken and hard-hitting white editor, Donald Woods, has been silenced, but the war between the government and the press goes on with neither side ready to lay down its guns.

It is a complicated struggle entwining an intense personal feud between Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger and his white and black critics of the fourth estate, the longstanding conflict between Afrikaner officialdom and English-speaking dissidents, and the drive by an increasingly threatened white government to crush the growing black power movement.

At stake is the fate of what has been to date probably the freest press on the African continent and the future style of Afrikaner rule not only over South Africa's 18 million blacks and more than 3 million coloreds and Indians but also over the 4.3 million whites.

South Africa has long pointed to the remarkably large degree of press freedom here as an indicator that it upholds the same values as those of the Wstern world, and thus is deserving of its support. Now, however, even pro-government editors are beginning to question the heavy handed tactics being used to silence dissent in the South African press.

Today, the English language independent press is coming under enormous pressure from the government to curb its unrelenting criticism of apartheid and Afrikaner rule, and it has no constitutional rights to turn to for protection.

Even before the latest South African crackdown last week, Kruger was attempting to force the English-language newspapers to submit to a press code the country's publishers drew up in April to escape direct government censorship.

Following the death of black activist Steve Biko, an Sept. 12, the battle for press freedon took a nasty and unexpected turn with the Oct. 19 banning of the black newspapers, the World, and its Sunday edition, the Weekend World, and the silencing of two editors who were among the most vociferous critics.

Percy Qoboza, black editor of the World, was put in detention without trial or specific charges and told he would probably remain there until August. Woods was "banned" to his home here under an order that does not officially expire until Oct. 31, 1982.

The institute of banning is unique on this continent to South Africa and is somewhat akin in its intent to exile in the Soviet Union. While South Africa has no monopoly on detaining people in prison or at home without trial or even charges, it is the only nation in Africa that has made such a practice "legal."

The exact number of persons now banned in South Africa is not clear, but sources close to Woods said it runs in the hundreds.

Banning orders vary greatly in their specifics, but the objective of most is to restrict movement and put an end to a person's political activities. Usually the government bans someone when it is determined to silence an individual but fears the charges would probably not stand up in the still quite independent courts.

In Wood's case, the government forbade him from leaving the city limits, talking to more than one person outside his immediate family at one time, being quoted directly by anyone going near his newspaper, and from helping "in any manner whatsoever" in the preparation or dissemination of any kind of publication.

About the only intellectual activity left to Woods is playing the piano and composing music, both of which he does with considerable talent. He can also play golf or tennis, provided he does not join any group by design. A chance encountered with two persons is permissible, but a planned one is out.

Wood's wife, Wendy, says her husband believes the main purpose of banning is to "diminish you as a person and punish you when they have not been able to make you a criminal." The overwhelming feeling of a banned person, she says, is that of being restricted.

The various threads of the press crisis in South Africa seem to have woven themselves together around Woods and Qoboza. The government decided to silence Qoboza and his widely read newspaper as part of its bid to crush the spreading black power movement at any cost and to stop daily criticism of its radical policies - from reaching the African community.

In Woods' case, the government's motives are more complex. Woods has long been exposing the patent contradictions and follies of South Africa's apartheid policy in his editorials, columns and speeches. In fact, he has become a kind of prophet of pending doom - a message the Afrikaner dominated government would just as soon not hear.

In one of his last columns to appear in the Dispatch, on Oct. 10, entitled "Message to My Fellow Citizens," Woods warned in sharp language that South Africa is heading for civil war and put the blame squarely on the government's shoulders.

"For the climate of hysteria and hatred that has created these dangers (threats to one's life). I blame this government and in particular Prime Minister Vorster and Police Minister Kruger as well as their lackey newspaper.

"They are the ones who have not only created the conditions causing violent unrest, but they have on several occasions by their words lent encouragement to excesses by white extremists who mysteriously have access to tear gas canisters and unlisted telephone numbers."

At the center of Woods' criticism of the government is a longstanding personal feud between him and Kruger over Biko.

Woods and Biko were close friends and more than a year ago the editor wrote a column warning the justice minister that there would be hell to pay if anything happened to the black leader while he was in government hands. His words, as it turns out, were prophetic.

Two years ago, Woods made a special trip to Pretoria to see Kruger in an effort to get a ban then imposed on Biko lifted. His argument to the minister then was that with the black tide of anger rising in the country, it was unwise to arrest black leaders such as Biko who might prevent an ugly, uncontrollable explosion.

The net result of his effort was the imposition of more restrictions on Biko and a government effort to prosecute Woods for failing to reveal to the government his sources in a related case. Woods was sentenced to six months in prison but won on appeal. The state's appeal of that decision to a higher appeals court is to be heard on Nov. 18.

Woods is not relenting either.He has initiated two court cases against Kruger for defamation of character and has demended $203,000 in compensation.He has already won five other suits in a similar basis.

Woods is reportedly also mulling over a direct court challenge to his banning order on the only grounds open to him in the absence of a bill of rights protecting press freedom, namely "bad faith" on Kruger's part.

The justice minister's action against Qoboza and Woods has forced criticism from even the most conservative Afrikaner editors. In a rare demonstration of unity, 20 Afrikaner and English editors signed a statement expressing their "profound condemnation of the arbitrary action" against the two editors, by the government.

They warned that if the government's actions "are intended to intimidate other editors, we record that we have no intention of altering our ways of conducting newspapers."

Indeed, an unending series of editorials and articles in both the Afrikaner and English newspapers has appeared demanding that the truth be told in the Biko affair and that the latest bannings and detentions be reversed, particularly as they affect the two editors and the World.

Kruger's direct challenge to the freedom of the press has served to show that the privately owned press is still sufficiently strong and bold to stand up to the government and fight for its interests, if not for its rights.

Still the government threat to introduce legislation to curb this freedom drastically remains like the sword of Damocles hanging over the South African independent press.