The seemingly nervous but smiling French-backed leader of this country said today that he was only engaging in a "serious joke" when he told a press conference yesterday that he would establish relations with South Africa.

David Dacko, who came to power in a French-supported bloodless coup last Thursday, retracted his earlier statement under a barrage of questions from startled reporters.

"After what we have been through," Dacko said, "We need to relax, and it was a serious joke."

One diplomatic source characterized Dacko's statement of South Africa as "inane." His statements "were inexplicable yesterday, less explicable today," he said.

Today was Dacko's fourth press conference in four days and, unlike yesterday, he at times was at a loss for words. He answered some questions by shaking his head both negatively and affirmatively, leading to further confusion.

"It was all a joke," he said finally. "I was not serious about a relationship" with South Africa.

Dacko was placed in power in a coup that overthrew emperor Bokassa. Bokassa has taken asylum in the Ivory Coast; France and several other countries refused him entry.

Henri Maidou, Bokassa's most recent prime minister and now Dacko's hand-picked vice president, sat stone-faced next to the new president throughout the news conference. During yesterday's press conference he grinned broadly.

During Bokassa's reign, South Africa poured a lot of money into Central Africa. The relations between the two countries were kept secret, however.

When asked today if he would maintain unofficial economic relations with South Africa, Dacko responed "I don't know. I might." He refused to elaborate further.

Dacko was elected Central Africa's first president after this country gained independence 19 years ago. He was overthrown by his cousin, Bokassa, then army chief of staff, in a New Year's Eve coup in 1965. Before the coup, Dacko, then only 30, reportedly was losing control of his ministers and the government.

He was popular, Central Africans say, because he lived modestly and was considered honest. Unlike his performance over the past several days, he maintained a "humorless" countenance during his earlier tenure, said one Western diplomat.

After Bokassa overthrew him, Dacko was kept in prison for 3 1/2 years -- the first several weeks of that in handcuffs -- then was released but kept under house arrest.

Bokassa claimed he had moved to eliminate waste and corruption among Dacko's government officials to halt increasing economic stagnation and end the influence of the Chinese who, he charged, threatened Central Africa's independence.

Dacko has accused Bokassa of condoning and participating in mass murder and ritual canibalism. Three headless bodies, Dacko said earlier this week, were found in a freezer at one of Bokassa's residences in Kalango, a few miles outside of Bangui.