Almost everyone is distressed these days by the frightening goings-on in South Africa and frustrated by the near hopelessness of preventing further and worse violence. Often I am asked whether there isn't some hopeful lesson or precedent for South Africa in our own country's post- World War II largely successful civil rights legislative, judicial and executive experiences.

Sadly, about all one can say in reply is that, in a world two-thirds non- white, change was inevitable in our segregated and discriminatory land and change is even more inevitable in South Africa's even more evil system of apartheid. But there the lesson and all similarity end.

Our problems here in the United States were large, and many of the heroes of that struggle I was privileged to call my friends. But it does them no disservice to suggest that our historic civil rights battles pale when measured against those raging in South Africa today.

For the civil rights revolution of our generation never threatened and does not today threaten white political and economic supremacy in the United States. Only about 1 percent of the elective offices in the nation are held by blacks, and the local positions they do fill are subject to overriding state and federal authority and do not come near endangering white domination of the entire political, economic and social structure of our nation.

But in South Africa whites see the end of the road of any civil rights revolution in their country as one-man-one vote -- as it must properly be -- and with it black control of every facet of their national life. They fear for their property rights and their safety as well as their political rule.

For us in America with a minority of blacks, voting was always considered the easiest civil right for which to gain acceptance. The 15th Amendment, adopted back in 1870, forbids denial of voting rights on the ground of race, and the Supreme Court regularly voided "grandfather clauses" and other state legislation intended to circumvent the amendment. The 1957 civil rights statute, the first since Reconstruction, protected, if only partially, the right to vote, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act filled out the law.

But, as already indicated, there is nothing in the right of blacks in this country to vote to scare any white about anything.

Not so in South Africa. There the right to vote, quite properly the hallmark of democracy and justice, not ony threatens white control of the political and economic systems but actually ensures black supremacy in all aspects of life.

There wasn't anything in school desegregation in the United States that should have scared the white community, yet it surely helped drive whites to the suburbs. If black children in the public schools here could scare responsible citizens into "white flight," what can we expect fear of black rule in South Africa to do?

No wonder whites are resisting changes in their system, seeing every change as an invitation to ultimate black majority rule. No wonder, too, that the world fears violence on an unprecedented scale either by white military resistance to the ever more militant demands of the blacks or the result of the blacks finally believing life under minority white rule could no longer be endured and massively storming into the guns of their oppressors.

Hasn't the time come to face up to these dangers? Hasn't the time come for a world plan for transition from white to black rule in South Africa? If the United Nations cannot undertake this awesome responsibility, shouldn't a consortium of democratic nations plan such a transition with firm timetables and use their persuasion and, if necessary, whatever sanctions may be required, to carry out the transition plan? The present worldwide paralysis in regard to South Africa only ensures the worst.

No one today has clear answers on what should be done, but everyone knows that we better start finding some answers soon. Every alternative must be explored: partition with fair allocation of the nation's resources; a federal system protecting the rights of whites, colored and blacks; free passage of whites who want to leave to other nations with some part of their capital accompanying them, the know- how and capital thus lost to be supplied by a world bent on preventing violence; a massive educational drive to train black public servants and professionals; a World Peace Corps to supply teachers and technicians in every walk of life; a United Nations or other observer force to oversee the gigantic changes to be made.

As one African National Congress official told me recently: "It is too late to talk about abuses of power; we have to start talking about the exercise of power by the black majority and how that is going to be brought about." Only a reasonable timetable for transition from white to black rule can save the day.

The United States' "constructive engagement" policy is a farce -- the exact opposite of the leadership needed and expected of our great country. People better start talking about the real problems and what to do about them before it is too late.