SOUTH AFRICA, you see, prides itself on having a free press. The press is one of the chief exhbits it flourishes when it attempts, as it regularly does, to claim a place in the "free world." To be sure, it had always been evident that South Africa's free press, to the extent that it is free, is its white press. Other races, held to be inferior by the law of the land, have never had a similar journalistic privilege. Still, in recent years some limited progress has been made in extending the priceless opportunity of open communication to blacks in South Africa. It is one of the few developments indicating the seriousness of the white government in attempting to move away from the racist apartheid system, or at least to mitigate its harshest effects.

All of this has been thrown into reverse, however, by recent events. Five leading black journalists have been "banned," silenced and sent into onerous internal exile, without due process. The two principal papers read by blacks, the Post and the Sunday Post, were effectively banned under the white-written Internal Security Act. It allows white officials to limit citizens' rights as they please without having to explain why, and it grants those affected not the skimpiest right of judicial appeal. In brief, the full weight of a police state has descended upon the few professional journalists and instruments of expression that the black majority, which enjoys no political rights whatever, might consider its own.

The only encouraging aspect to the affair is the extent to which the white press, and even the Afrikaans-language part of it traditionally most supportive of official policy, has recognized the banning of the Post and the Sunday Post as something of interest to the whole country. "Another bar has been added to the cage which is beginning to circumscribe our freedom," the head of the (white) company that owns the two newspapers declared. It is very late for South Africans to be coming to that truth.