White South Africans' sometimes heated struggle over the future of their nation landed in a hearing room and hallway of Congress yesterday, as a newspaper editor who fled from house arrest in South Africa and a private attorney who has defended that nation's security police traded verbal jabs.

The occasion was an appearance before a House International Relations subcommittee by Donald Woods, the former editor of a South African newspaper, The East London Daily Express, who, in December, hitchiked and swam to freedom from the "banning" imposed on him in October.

While Woods told the Africa subcommittee that the apartheid policies of the minority "white tribe" of South Africans could lead to racial civil war in as little as three years, Retief Van Rooyen, a white-haired, pinstripe-suited South African lawyer, reddened and fidgeted in a back row seat.

Van Rooyen was independently hired by the South African police as the police counsel in the recent inquiry into the death of murdered black consciousness leader Steven Biko.

He had come to the United States, he said, on private business, but arranged through the official South African publicity organization to hold a news conference at the conclusion of Woods' remarks.

As Van Rooyen made notes, Woods told the subcommittee that the United States should withdraw diplomatic recognition from South Africa, and take steps to halt or slow the flow of U.S. dollars to the increasingly isolated nation.

"Withdrawing recognition from a tyrant - or in our case a congress of tyrants - is not only effective, but is almost demanded," Woods said.

Asked if disinvestiment in South Africa by U.S. businesses would hurt blacks by cutting the jobs, Woods replied that all of the new generations of black leaders favor disinvestment.

Only about 1.2 per cent of South African blacks are affected by the operations of multinational companies, Woods said. He added that the high return that makes investment there attractive is made possible in part by low wages and paid to blacks.

"I think these are not matters that can lightly be pushed aside," he said.

Woods said strong action by the U.S. government is needed to impress the Afrikaners who are the main supports of the ruling party because the typical Afrikaner "doesn't think you're serious at the moment."

He advised the U.S. officials not to worry about their actions forcing South African whites to circle their wagons even tighter in self-defense - "go into the larger," in Afrikaner idiom - because "the whites are already in the larger. No action taken could drive them further into it."

At the hearings' end, Woods was told that Van Rooyen was in the audience. Asking if Van Rooyen had defended the security police, Woods said, "The role he played in the (Biko) inquest reflected no credit on the South African legal system, since the inquest itself was a force."

A furious Van Rooyen began his news conference with a counterattack on Woods. "I find myself in a situation where a person who alleges he swam the river to get out of my country has put across the big lie."

"The big lie," he said, is that South African blacks want the Western democracies to turn their backs on South Africa.