The newspaper that has done the most unravel and reveal the tangled skein of financial abuses that led to South Africa's present political crises was established in 1902 when the this city was a rough-and-tumble miners' town only 16 years old.

The Rand Daily Mail took its name from a popular abbreviation for this area, the Witwatersrand, where gold was discovered in 1886. Its financial backing came from the mining magnates who were in close financial and political alliance with the British government, which had just inflicted a harrowing defeat on the Afrikaners in the Anglo-Boer war.

In 1948, when the Arfikaner-dominated National Party with its distinctly anti-British bias and its distinctive policy of apartheid or legalized racial separation came into power, the Mail passed into the role of a leading oposition paper.

Some observers feel the paper has become too partisan, especially since the appointment in 1977 of its present editor, Allister Sparks. They believe it identifies too closely with the official opposition, the Progressive Federal Party. Although these critics praise the Mail's courageous exposure of injustices in South Africa, they also believe that by refusing to give the government credit for anything, its criticism has to some extent become counterproductive.

On the other hand, for many urban blacks the Mail, like the white "liberals, it is identified with, is regarded as irrelevant because it is too "establishment."

Nevertheless, the Mail has an average circulation of 150,000 second only to the afternoon English daily The Johannesburg Star, which is more moderate in its criticism of the government.

A complicated and diffuse series of shareholdings in the paper's publishing firm, the South African Associated Newspapers (SAAN), obfuscates who has real control over the paper. But most of the shares are held by trusts, pensions funds and busines concerns that have threads leading back to the huge Anglo-American mining conglomerate headed by Harry Oppenheimer. How much control Oppenheimer, who is a financial patron of the Progressive Party, can, or wants, to exert on the paper is not know.

Afrikaner interests have twice made serious efforts to purchase the Rand Daily Mail in the early 1900s and in 1975. The latter attempt is particularly significant sine the money for that bid came from secret government funds from the former Information Department, whose mismanagement led to the scandal the Mail is currently exposing.

The investigative drive that the paper exhibited in unearthing the Information Ministry scandal has been a charateristic of the paper since Laurence Gander became editor in 1957. Under his direction, reporter Benjamin Pogrun wrote a series exposing conditions in South Africa's prisons in 1965 that led to a complicated and lengthy trial for both men on charges of publishing false information about prisons. The government won the case, which cost the paper more than $300,000.

Although one of its sister papers, the Sunday Express, initially broke the ice on the scandal now plaguing the government and won the country's top journalism award for its coverage, it has been the Mail that has come through with detailed, hard-hitting stories frazzling the government's version of the scandal, and its credibility, into shreds.

The Mail's greatest coup was its successful pursuit of the Well-dressed, peripatetic Eschel Rhoodie in his self-imposed exile. While other papers said they did not have enough money to chase the former information secretary or simply didn't bother, the Rand Daily Mail's Mervyn Rees found him-initially in Miami's airport.

Front-page runs of Rhoodie's allegations that the scandal was far more serious than the government admitted and hammering front-page editorials pointing out discrepancies between Rhoodie's and the government's versions of the story have been breakfast reading for the Mail's readers the past six weeks.

Whether by design, the paper sparred effectively with the government by initially presenting Rhoodie's allegations in general form. The government rose to the bait and quickly denied most of the allegations. The Mail then followed up with details of the charges on succeeding days.

The paper, however, faced accusations from other papers that it failed to comply with ethics of fair journalism when it occasionally made no effort to get comment from government figures on allegations it printed.

For the government, the paper is enemy number one and its pursuit of such things as alleged bribery of foreign government figures-which is supposed to have been part of the govenrments's covert propaganda war-is close to treason.

On the other hand, theMail's dogged persistance received an unexpected boost from the courts when they twice refused government pleas for an injunction stopping it and a sister paper from printing any more disclosures on the scandal.

Unsolicited backing for the Mail also came from another unexpected quarter-the Afrikaansnewspapers. As the Mail plunged ahead with embarrassing disclosures, the afrikaans press has, in effect, taken the rearguard agaist the government by defending the Mail's right to print the stories, even if they lamented what was being said by the "wolfpack of opposition papers."

The influential commentator Willem De Kelrk, editor of Die Transvaler, said. "The opposition press, however troublesome it may be for [the goverment], is essential. In many respects in recent times, [it] did its work, which is its good right."

The Johannesburg morning daily Beeld, was more scathing in its criticism of the government efforts to supress the Mail. Although it acknowledged that the opposition press had not always handled the disclosures in the best way, "this cannot conceal that politicians were responsible for the enormous mess in which we now sit," the paper said in an editorial.

Some observers believe that without this unsolicited "protection" from the Afrikaans press, the government would have acted long ago against the Mail and other offending papers.

The Afrikaans press support is just one example of its waxing independence from the Afrikaner-dominated government it has cozily supported for so long. This tendency which has been growing over the past year, received a significant boost when Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha decteed in November that government officials would no longer be allowed to sit on boards of newspaper publishing firms. Botha resigned his board seat on the Afrikaans publishing house, Nasionale Pers.

As the government has hastened to contain disclosures about the skulduggery and graft in its $73 million covert public relations scheme and then to cover up the full extent of ministerial responsibility for the scandal, the Afrikaans press has displayed, an impatience and outspokeness against its leaders that would scarcely have been thought, let alone written, just a few years ago.

The scandal, or what one Afrikaans paper described as "the whole filthy, stinking mess and blot on the name of all decent people," has frayed the trust and respect for the leaders with whom the Afrikaans press establishment has always enjoyed a "good old boy" rather than an adversary relationship.

The increasing "independence" of the Afrikaans press has not gone on without some publicly voiced consternation from the conservative wing in the ruling National Party, which thinks, as the Die Vaderland paper said, that the newspapers "are carrying their 'independene' too far."

This sentiment was evident last week in two speeches of conservative ministers, one of whom complained that the Afrikans press was "collaborating" with the English press. Antipathy for the Afrikaans press was also evident when Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger rose to answer questions about the new policies bill posed by De Klerk in an editorial.

"The question by the editor is so insulting, that it does not justify an answer. I have never seen the press to be suffering from any inhibitions," Krugger said. CAPTION: Symbol, The ensignia of the Rand Daily Mail