Four slain black activists, whose deaths have come to symbolize the growing pattern of violence and retaliation in this racially torn society, were buried today in an emotion-charged funeral.

Under clear blue skies and the watchful eyes of nearby white police officers and soldiers, about 20,000 mourners gathered to lay to rest the bodies of schoolteacher Matthew Goniwe and three colleagues. Their charred and mutilated corpses, found three weeks ago on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, 120 miles from here, have led to charges by activists that right-wing death squads are operating in South Africa.

Police and paratroopers were gathered in force along with at least a half dozen armored personnel carriers and heavy weaponry within sight of the crowd on the outskirts of the black township of Ilingelihle. But this was a day of rhetoric and mourning, not violence, and there were no incidents reported.

It was also a day whose meaning was sharpened by the announcement that the government has declared a state of emergency in 36 magisterial districts, many of them in the eastern Cape region where Goniwe and his colleagues worked.

Goniwe, 38, had founded a local community organization here and inspired a resistance movement among this remote country town's once-docile blacks. He lost his teaching job and was held in prison for six months without trial but stubbornly refused to submit and was reportedly on the verge of being reinstated when he was killed.

His death and those of the three other Cradock activists have shaken community leaders but not broken their resolve. They have launched a boycott of local white-owned shops in retaliation and issued a series of demands, including the withdrawal of all soldiers from their township.

Political funerals of black victims have become weekly and sometimes daily events in this country where at least 450 persons have been killed during the past 10 months. But there were some unusual touches at today's event, including the unfurling of one large red banner with a hammer and sickle and a second with the name of the South African Communist Party. The organization has been outlawed here for 35 years and the display of such symbols is a criminal offense.

There were also slogans and chants lauding Umkonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, the underground guerrilla organization of the outlawed African National Congress, South Africa's main black resistance movement.

ANC President Oliver Tambo sent a message from Lusaka, Zambia, where he and his organization operate in exile. He denounced "the monster that is apartheid" -- South Africa's system of legal segregation -- and said the four men had been "brutally robbed of their lives by those who would deny us our freedom."

The gap between the 25,000 black residents of this township and the 7,000 whites of Cradock a mile down the road has never been wider. While the township mourned its dead, whites attended a well-publicized rugby match in town. White shops remained open, and white soldiers and Army vehicles were visible throughout the town.

White officials have suggested that Goniwe and his companions were killed by rival black radicals opposed to the United Democratic Front.