Saving souls is hard work, even for the Elmer Gantrys of this world, so one must sympathize with the Rev. Jerry Falwell's swift and undoubtedly tiring journey to South Africa on behalf of -- well, what? Apartheid? No, the reverend says he's opposed to that. The interests of the white minority as opposed to the black majority? No, of course not. The commercial enterprises of that country -- or of this -- that stand to lose from an imposition of sanctions? That is too grubby to contemplate, entirely too unseemly for a man of the cloth. The political agenda of the American "New Right" (which seems very old and very familiar)? Surely, that cannot be so for such a Christian minister as Falwell. No, let us take Falwell on his own terms. Let us say he is sincere -- and tragically wrong.

The saddest thing about Falwell's public remarks after he returned from a 5 1/2-day visit to South Africa is the astonishing ignorance they reveal, to say nothing of their breaktakingly meddlesome insensitivity. He steps in the midst of one of the most complex, difficult, explosive and dangerous situations in the world, of which race is only one obvious component, and proceeds to issue one blunderingly wrong-headed pronouncement after another.

On the basis of a few conversations, he presumes to tell us what blacks think, what whites think, what the policy of the government really is as opposed to what it says it is, what the response of Americans, private and public, should be. His remarks further complicate an already near insoluble problem for U.S. policymakers -- and are delivered without the slightest hint of doubt that in making such sweeping simplicities he renders the whole "truth." Or that his truth needs to tempered by any shades of gray. He entertains no doubts. He knows it all.

All this serves only to expose Falwell's total lack of understanding of the forces and the history that make the South African story compelling and tragic.

New York Mayor Edward Koch is correct: Perhaps not since Charles A. Lindbergh's self-destructive, naive and offensive remarks about Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II has a well-known American public figure so damaged his reputation by his own foolish actions.

In the long run, of course, what Falwell thinks or says is of no consequence. But to the extent his views reflect those of a wider segment of the American public, or influence others, they deserve to be addressed, corrected and put in perspective.

To judge from Falwell's remarks, he's one of those who follows only the latest headlines. Only now has he discovered the difficulties building inexorably in South Africa. That is the first misconception, and it sets the stage for all the others that inevitably follow.

There's nothing new about the South African story -- not the violence, not the tensions, not the historically difficult problems. They are a part of the land and the people who live there. Nor is there any voice that speaks for all of South Africa. Not one white view, not one black: not today, not yesterday. Yet, on one point agreement has existed. The present-day Republic of South Africa, formerly the Union of South Africa that was established in 1910 as a member of the British Commonwealth of nations but with a rich and tangled history far predating that, long has been known to be a place of fateful internal tensions that threaten to tear it apart.

For the last four decades world attention periodically has focused on South Africa's crises, its flaring of race wars and deaths, its brutally repressive racial policies, its inherent looming tragedies and its vast potentialities. These have formed the stuff of memorable books of fiction and nonfiction alike. Brilliant journalistic articles have been written and impassioned debates have been held before the United Nations. Always hovering in the background are the big-power stakes involving South Africa's strategic position -- and strategic resources. They are of worldwide significance in the Cold War.

South Africa today, no less than in its past, remains a beautiful and troubled land of fabulous wealth and miserable poverty, of limitless opportunity for some and little hope for others. It is a land of deep-seated prejudices, a land where the primitive and the progressive exist side by side, a land whose people have been and still are seriously divided. They are torn by ancient grudges and factional strife, and yet withal immensely proud of their country and its promise. To this day, the whites, or "Europeans" as they long called themselves, remain divided between the Afrikaners of Dutch, Huguenot and German descent who speak Afrikaans and the South Africans, largely of English descent. Their hatreds nursed since the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), more intense and lasting by far than the antagonisms between the American white southerners and the American white northerners of our Civil War, exist entirely apart from the racial conflicts there.

Nor, despite the nonsense spouted by Falwell that the white regime has been making concessions and instituting reforms -- all of which would be imperiled by criticisms and demonstrations whether from within or without or by economic sanctions aimed at forcing an end to those policies -- the historical record is just the reverse.

The policy of apartheid (an Afrikaans' word meaning "apartness") has been the source of unending conflict and controversy for decades. And despite the continually repeated official line all these years that South Africa will solve its racial problems if only the "outsiders" will leave it alone, it has not. The inevitable racial strife stemming from its harsh and repressive policy has been building, building, building for year after year. Now it threatens to explode into a conflagration, letting loose a tidal wave of racial violence in which the outcome is ordained. Whites, outnumbered by 4 to 1, will be extinguished. Continuance of the official policy of the iron fist can have only one ending. The entire house and everything within it will be destroyed. The Greek tragedy that so many feared for so long now is immeasurably closer at hand.

The United States' capacity to effect change in South Africa is, as many have pointed out in recent weeks, severely limited.

That doesn't mean the United States lacks a role to play or a responsibility to do all in its power to ease those tensions and work for a peaceful solution. Sadly, in this as in other areas foreign and domestic, there exists no clearly defined U.S. policy and no clear expression of American concern from the top. South Africa drifts into greater tragedy. We seem unable to stir ourselves from a sense of official lethargy about it. The world faces a moral crisis of profound importance. The American response is, at most, one of a muted and mixed signal.

As for Falwell and the mischief he has created, the best thing to do is adopt a Christian attitude. Forgive him, for he knows not whereof he speaks.