FIVE POLICE AGENTS of the South African government raided the home--and seven raided the office--of Allister Sparks, The Washington Post's correspondent in South Africa, yesterday. These police spent around two hours in Mr. Sparks' house and a little over four in his office, pawing over private papers and furnishings, seizing such things as files, clippings, records of current messages and communications between The Post in Washington and Mr. Sparks in Johannesburg, and taking Mr. Sparks' typewriter as well when they finally left. The pretext for this disgusting behavior seems to have been a couple of articles which Mr. Sparks had written--get this--10 months ago.

Does that sound fishy to you? It should. But wait, there's more. The law that was invoked to justify this ransacking of Mr. Sparks' private quarters and The Post's Johannesburg office so long after his purported offense, says you may not quote a "banned" person in the press. "Banned" people are those who have been formally ostracized and put under some form of house arrest by that wonderful South African government which is at such pains these days to tell us all how enlightened it is. Generally, South Africa correspondents for publications here, in Britain and elsewhere have taken this to mean that although you could not quote these people in the South African press itself, you could quote them in articles to be printed in other countries. Such "banned" persons as the black political dissident, Winnie Mandela, and the white Afrikaner racial reformer, Beyers Naude, have frequently been quoted in various of these publications, such as the British daily and weekly papers and the International Herald Tribune, that find their way into South Africa.

If such indirect breaches of the government's effort to maintain the kind of political silence it likes best have been prosecuted, it has been a rarity. That is why the fact that Mr. Sparks quoted Mrs. Mandela in articles that were published months ago in the Tribune and in the London Observer, for which he also writes, is so flimsy and unconvincing an excuse for the raid on Mr. Sparks' home and on The Post's Johannesburg office. We think they plain don't like what Mr. Sparks has been writing and that they are trying to intimidate him.

Anyone who tries to intimidate Allister Sparks, an uncomprisingly honest journalist, happens to be setting out on a fool's mission. We could have told the South African government that and spared it a lot of trouble. But to our mind, it is not so much what the people who authorized this police raid need to be told as what they are telling all the rest of the world about themselves that is interesting. Here we have a government that says over and over again to people in this country that we have got it all wrong, that it has embarked on a reformist path racially and that, in any event, such institutions as its courts and its press are relatively free--certainly free by the standards that obtain for such things almost everywhere else.

Some freedom, some democracy, some toleration of an independent press. As is so often the case with governments, one does better to watch what this one does than what it says.