What could be more cruel to the blacks of South Africa than to deny them their chosen manner of mourning? Yet that is precisely what the white-minority government has done in the large areas covered by its state of emergency. Hundreds of blacks have been killed in recent months in the torment induced by apartheid. Funerals were the last legal place where blacks could come together; there is no doubt that they were taking on a political aspect. The Botha government, facing once again a choice between a reasonable and a repressive line, once again took the latter. It imposed new restrictions on funerals "of people who die of unnatural causes."

Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel peace laureate, caught the full and hideous irony. "Please allow us to bury our people who died because of apartheid," he said yesterday. "Don't rub salt in our wounds." He was speaking at a funeral -- one that apparently fell within the limits permitted by the new decree -- of three people who had been killed in a clash with police after an earlier funeral. This is the situation: apartheid crushes blacks, denies them a political channel for protest and now denies them also a forum of lament for those who die at the system's hands.

It could be different. Just a few days ago, for instance, Bishop Tutu solicited a meeting with President P. W. Botha to address the issues behind the current turmoil. A sensible politician would have grasped the hand of one of the diminishing band of black moderates. Instead Mr. Botha spurned Bishop Tutu. He demanded not only that the bishop repudiate violence -- which he has already done, repeatedly and at great risk to his own life. He also insisted that the bishop repudiate civil disobedience, which, if he did it, would leave blacks on their knees saying pretty please to a regie that has earned their massive distrust.

The government, of course, sees it another way. Even some of its occasional internal critics are defending it these days, claiming that the reforms that have been promised if not yet entirely delivered by the Botha government have not been adequately appreciated by either South African blacks or foreigners. The government seems to have almost no sense of the too-little, too-late aspect of its reforms and of the desperation and evaporating patience of the black majority.

The West -- even the United States -- is moving toward what are in fact rather mild economic sanctions against South Africa. The South African supporters of the government feel bruised and are trying not to show panic. They need to see the sanctions not as a reprisal but as a demand that they reach out to the South African blacks who are in a position to speak for their people and to lead them to a peaceable and just solution.