Black South Africans, if they had seen the recent debate between George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, would be looking skyward now, watching as fervently as any Grenadian ever did for their American rescuers to land. You see, they would have heard the vice president pledge his support for the aspirations of South Africa's franchiseless majority.

They would have taken comfort in Bush's painstaking distinction between "those countries that are searching for democracy and the handful of countries that totally violated human rights," and his pledge to support the former while opposing the latter. They would have shouted Hallelujah! on hearing a spokesman for the United States declare: "It is our policy to support democracies, (but) when you have freedom fighters that want to perfect (their) revolution and go the democratic route" -- one man, one vote? -- "we believe in giving them support."

It's just as well they didn't hear the vice president. Bush (who permits himself no thought that the president doesn't share) didn't mean it. Not only will there be no material support for South African freedom fighters; even verbal support won't be forthcoming if the words are too strong. This week, just over a month after some 40 blacks were killed in protests over the constitutional "reforms" that give limited political rights to Asian and mixed-race South Africans while denying any citizenship rights to the black majority, the government undertook what observers called the biggest crackdown ever on political dissent.

Some 7,000 agents, including for the first time army soldiers (brandishing automatic rifles) as well as the police, cordoned off black townships and staged a house-by- house search for political "agitators." It was an extraordinary action, even for South Africa. But when the U.N. Security Council proposed a resolution of condemnation, the United States -- alone among the 15 council members -- abstained. The reason, according to U.S. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, was that the resolution contained some unspecified "excesses of language." Perhaps the reference was to charges of "massacre" of black protesters, or language declaring apartheid "a crime against humanity," or description of the unprecedented raids as "virtual martial law." Kirkpatrick didn't say.

The blacks who constitute 73 percent of South Africa's population might have wondered just what total violation of human rights Bush had in mind. They might have wondered what distinction the U.S. government makes between "freedom fighters" who don't like the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and "agitators" who protest the complete denial of citizenship rights in South Africa.

The State Department, apparently feeling some need to explain Kirkpatrick's abstention, issued a statement "deeply" regretting the raids and other "repressive measures." But there was no indication it was calling into question the policy of "constructive engagement" by which the United States supposedly expects to talk South Africa into softening the most thoroughgoing system of official racism on earth. Black South Africans understand, even if supporters of the administration refuse to, that "constructive engagement" is nothing more than U.S. acquiescence in South Africa's inhumanity.