The bishop is unrepentant. If necessary, he will break the law again.

Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, who is also general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, believes he has no other choice.

Last week the bishop led an illegal protest march here and spent a night in jail. His determination to persist, however, has placed Tutu on the edge of a confrontation with the government.

As with many other black clerics here, it has fallen on Tutu's shoulders to voice black opposition to the goverment's racially-based policy of apartheid because normal political organization is denied blacks. By default, the churches have joined the political battle.

The South African Council of Churches, representing some 25 million Christians of whom 80 percent are black, currently is the only organization regularly articulating black grievences on a national level.

This is largely because of Tutu, who became the council's first black secretary general in March 1978. Since then he has taken a more activist stance that includes the encouragement of civil disobedience to "unjust" laws. Although last week's march to demand the release of a detained minister was not sponsored by the council, most of the 53 church leaders who participated in it are council members.

Such protests make the council and its affiliated churches stand out like sore thumbs in Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's "total strategy" that aims to draw every sector of the community into supporting his program to streamline white minority rule.

Under "total strategy," allowable dissent is being increasingly limited, as made clear by a slide show prepared by the military for selected audiences of decision makers. The Anglican Church was among the groups portrayed by the show as subversive of "order" in South Africa, according to one person who saw it.

Last year Police Minister Louis Le Grange attacked the council and its "leftist ministers" for their "propaganda actions" which he said included: encouraging conscientious objection to military service; encouraging disinvestment in South Africa; encouraging civil disobedience; condemning security legislation; caring for families of political detainees; financing political trials; rejecting the segregated education system; describing the government as suppressive and illegal and giving whites a "guilty conscience."

Botha entered the fray last month by telling a Johannesburg University audience that the council has distributed more than $3 million within South Africa "with only one purpose -- that is to promote unrest."

Botha said the council was conducting "an onslaught on the developing order in South Africa," and claimed that civil disobedience had a clear link with the banned African National Congress.

The congress, a black nationalist guerrilla movement, claimed responsibility for the sabotage attack recently on South Africa's strategic fuel manufacturing complex of Sasol.

Many, including Tutu himself, feel Botha's remarks presage action against either the bishop or the council. Tutu's passport was taken away from him in March, presumably as a warning. The next step could be a banning order, a unique South African degree that prohibits a person from normal social contacts in order to restrict his influence in the community.

All this has not fazed the 48-year-old prelate whose determination to speak out has gotten stronger as the pressure on him has risen.

Tutu crossed swords with the government last year during a trip overseas when he urged the Danish government to stop buying South African coal. The bishop said he believes economic pressure to be the last means of achieving peaceful change here. Promoting economic boycotts against South Africa is a crime and, upon his return from Denmark, Tutu was called in for a meeting with two Cabinet ministers who demanded he retract the statement. He refused.

Subsequently, he called on blacks to resist Botha's "Total strategy" and told the government another surge of unrest was inevitable if school boycotts were met with detentions. He also forecast that black nationalist Nelson Mandela, a former congress president now serving a life sentence for sabotage, would "almost certainly" be South Africa's first black prime minister -- within 10 years.

"I am sick and tired of government officials making allegations such as those by Mr. Botha," Tutu said after the prime minister's speech last month. "If they have the evidence of our nefarious activities, why, for goodness' sake, don't they charge the [council] in open court."

Although the government may consider Tutu a radical, he is hardly that.

"Nobody expects all the changes to happen overnight," he told a recent meeting. He said he wants the government to state "clearly and unequivocally that you are committed to an undivided nonracial South Africa.

"But if South Africa is to be Balkanized and blacks stripped of their South African citizenship, then you can kiss goodbye to any chances of a peaceful solution," Tutu warned.

Many of Tutu's remarks are directed to whites rather than blacks: "what sort of language must we use such that white people will hear that we have an anguish that cannot go unattended, that we would like to assure them that we want to live with them in this country.

"But they must never believe that we are going to remain unfree. . . We are now talking only of the 'how' and the 'when'. And we have only to look at the students to know that, brother, the "when' may be around the corner. Why for goodness' sake don't the white people assist it to come since it is inevitable?"