South Africans are intelligent people. They are even a devoutly religious people. But South Africa's assault on its non-white population ignores the lessons of chaos in Iran and civil war in Rhodesia.

The death toll in South Africa builds daily as the colored (mixed blood) and Asian populations cry out in desperation for basic changes in the government's racialist apartheld policies. Apartheld divides the citizens into black, colored, Asian and white groups, the whites being the only group with any voting or property rights.

A simple request to study in English rather than in Afrikaans, a language used only in South Africa, sparked the Soweto massacre of hundreds of schoolchildren by police in June 1976.

The present indignation and upheaval are related to the simple quest by the colored students for an end to the country's racially segregated education system -- a quest that the entire world community must approve.

One must ask: what gives the South African government the confidence that it can proceed to abrogate the rights of 18 million of its citizens and still maintain business and cultural ties to the West?

Is it possible that they view white skin color as an indivisible tie to the West that gained them carte blanche to trample on the rights to the citizenry?

Is the supposed strategic importance of the Cape sea route such a key link in the Western defense network that the lessons of past totalitarian societies are muted?

The recent elections in Zimbabwe would indicate to normal, rational people that majority rule under democratic auspices is the only way to ensure stability and security in that region. But the government of South Africa instead becomes more oppressive and violent.

South Africa has banned nearly everything but breathing. Shortly before midnight on June 13, the government issued a special "gazette" banning any political gathering of more than 10 persons. The banning order applies to meetings where "any form of state, or any principle or policy or action of a government of a state, or of a political party or political group, is propagated, defended, attacked, criticized or discussed, or at which any protest or boycott or strike is encouraged or discussed, or which is held in protest against or in support of or in commemoration of anything. . . ."

Whew!

South Africa also boosted that its recent military venture into Angola against Namibian liberation camps was its greatest feat since World War II, but the response from the West is silence. There were no urgent calls for meetings of the U.N. Security Council as in the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The righteous indignation of months past does not apply to the Repulbic of South Africa.

Where are the human rights voices of the West in the wake of 42 dead and 200 injured in recent weeks?

The presidents of Africa's 50 nations, gathering in Sierra Leone, West Africa, starting tomorrow, for the annual meeting of the Organization of African Unity, will discuss the situation in southern Africa. Let there be no doubt that these heads of state will speak to the discrepancy and Western policies.

Likewise, those who hope to escape a U.N. Security Council demand for sanctions against the last bastion of racial oppression only deceive themselves.

The scenario is unfolding from a dim outline to stark reality, just as events progressed in Iran and other nations built on sheer military authority. First it is a few, and the response is brute force; then come the many, and brute force is inadequate.

Totalitarian societies unfortunately don't reform. They suddenly disintegrate in the face of a national will to be free. Strong pressure from Western governments can give support to the more reasonable forces in South Africa, and the situation could evolve, limiting the bloodshed and turmoil.

External pressures made the difference in Zimbabwe; they were too little and too late in Iran. The choice is still open in South Africa -- chaos or a community of peace and justice.