A SOUTH African government that wished to could have made much of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Desmond Tutu, a black champion of equal rights. Ideally it would have identified itself with his longing for a decisive turn away from the racist apartheid system. Without undue strain, it could have expressed favor for his personal qualities of compassion, justice and peacefulness. At the least, it could have made sure that for a decent interval it would do nothing to heighten the contrast between Bishop Tutu's standards of public discourse and its own.

South Africa did none of these things. Instead, it sent 7,000 security officers, including army soldiers not previously used for a function of internal policing, into three black townships south of Johannesburg looking, ostensibly, for subversives, security threats and revolutionaries. These armed phalanxes ransacked the homes and disrupted the lives of nearly a quarter of a million people and found only a few hundred suspected pass-law violators and petty criminals. Not one security arrest was announced, but perhaps that is beside the authorities' evident point: to demonstrate that, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding, outsiders cannot tell the masters of apartheid how to run their domain.

What is also demonstrated is the poor political and historical judgment underlying South African police rule. If there were a Nobel Political Boorishness Award, South Africa would long ago have retired the trophy. It is not simply that its timing is bad; its understanding of its own dilemma is bad. Bishop Tutu, is among those blacks -- Gatsha Buthelezi, who wrote of the black struggle for these pages on Sunday, is another -- ready and able to speak for their people if the white leadership had the sense to open a dialogue. For it can only be through people such as the bishop and the Zulu tribal chief that white South Africans can ensure a place in the country they share. But the ruling whites rely on force and slap down the hand that reasonable non-white leaders extend.

The United States abstained in the Security Council's otherwise unanimous condemnation of this latest raid. "Excesses of language" in the resolution were cited. There were, at the U.N., excesses of language -- there always are. There were also, in South Africa, excesses of power -- and they go on. The Reagan administration has a theory (positive reinforcement) about how best to move white South Africa toward reform, but it does not yet have a clear voice in which to make it plain that in applying its theory it is not simply coddling racists. This is a grievous defect in the policy of any nation that claims to speak for freedom.