WHILE AMERICANS were voting on Tuesday, so, in the indirect fashion permitted them, were many South African blacks. They lack a franchise and any political mechanism for expressing their interests or communicating their views; the new South African constitution locks them out more definitely than ever. But they remain in a position to make a powerful political statement by withholding the one thing that the ruling white minority most values them for: their labor. Hundreds of thousands of blacks went on strike, bringing South Africa's industrial heartland to a near standstill, according to news reports. It was described as the biggest political strike by blacks in the country's history.

It is hard to imagine the desperation and courage it takes for blacks to go on strike in what is for them a highly organized police state. They face a police force that is the arm of white privilege. By striking, they risk loss of their jobs in the cities where the jobs are and the likelihood of banishment to the barren job- less "homelands." In addition to the expected beatings, arrests and killings last week, one state-owned oil-from-coal plant known as Sasol simply fired 6,000 workers, 90 percent of its black work force. South Africa's white rulers have gone to great lengths to ensure that what protests do take place against the apartheid system do not spill over into the work place. In the latest strike, the authorities refused to listen to or credit the strikers' assorted political and economic grievances. The protest was attributed to "instigators, arsonists and radicals," as the home affairs minister put it.

Nonetheless the strike went on. Its results are to be measured less in terms of concessions won -- these are bound to be minimal if not negative -- than in terms of increased consciousness of solidarity among those who took part. The official South African strategy is to fragment the black majority, by setting up separate homelands and by restricting organizational and even social links. But the few black organizations that have been permitted, including the United Democratic Front and black trade unions, made this strike happen. The inevitable reprisals further isolate the white government from foreigners it would like to cultivate and, more important, from the countries' blacks, whom it desperately needs to reconcile.