BERNARDUS FOURIE, South Africa's ambassador in Washington, doesn't like the demonstrations against apartheid that are taking place outside his embassy daily and that are being organized in other cities. Likening them to Iran's takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, he has pronounced himself "rather surprised, shocked," that the United States, "a country whose embassies have been violated," would allow "the sanctity of an embassy to be violated in this fashion." The ambassador has got it exactly wrong.

What happened in Iran was that a gang of revolutionaries physically stormed the American Embassy and held its occupants hostage for 444 days with the consent, if not the actual complicity, of the formal authorities. This could not be more different from what has been going on at South Africa's premises in Washington. The first group of protesters here, far from "invading" the embassy, were invited in by the ambassador. When, their demands unsatisfied, they refused to leave, the police promptly removed them. The police then set up the usual line to keep demonstrators at least 500 feet from the embassy, and they have been arresting people who cross it.

In short, the United States is not allowing the sanctity of the South African Embassy to be violated in any manner. It is providing the embassy with all the considerable protections of American political custom and law, and -- here is something Mr. Fourie might put into one of his cables to the home office -- fully respecting the rights and the dignity of the protesters in the process.

Mr. Fourie has gone on to say that the demonstrations will not force change in his country. As a South African, he is in a position to know something about that. But as his country's emissary, he should also be in a position to tell Americans who question the ruling white minority's good faith what will force change in his country. Perhaps he is wondering whether the current round of protests is a passing fancy or something that may become part of the permanent political furniture in the United States. At the moment, this is the interesting question, and its answer will be given by the demonstrators, over time.