A couple of weeks ago in this space I talked about South Africa. This week it is the American response to what is happening there that interests me. South Africa is, in my view, a special case, but the argument here has been anything but special. It has been routine, with predictable people taking predictable sides and saying predictable things. I think this is a gigantic mistake, especially for those conservatives (some, but not all) who fail to recognize the distinctiveness of the South African case as -- oh, dread term -- a moral issue. Especially because they are in office now, and also because they are politically in the ascendant, their choices and their views will have great consequence. Sometimes I think they are on the verge of one of those vast and infinitely regretted histori failures of principle with which they have taxed liberalism from time to time, and not entirely without justice.

I will leave liberalism's historic defaults aside for the moment; the current case is South Africa. And I will register the obligatory acknowledgment that there are some forms of moral crusading in foreign policy and moralizing and self-congratulatory moral posturing that we all abominate. Okay? Now let's get on with it.

It is true that even those people who, one way and another, are defending or at least seeking to protect the white South African government do not verbally endorse its racial system -- not exactly, anyway. On the contrary, everybody these days begins his conversation with the statement "Apartheid is repugnant." It is the universal conversational T-shirt. However, the next word is often "but," and, when it is, the important part of the statement is what follows. From some parts of the administration and from some quarters of the conservative intelligentsia there then usually come two points.

The first is that if the apartheid government is too summarily dispossessed, a civilized, industrial nation and friend of the West will summarily and thoroughly plunge into social bestiality, decivilization and economic death. Leave aside the uncomfortable racial implications of what is said. Accept that the political, social and economic performance of newly liberated Black Africa has been in many places catastrophic. The problem is that the second justifying point made in this argument is inconsistent with and cancels out the first. It is a position that is hauled up to lessen the arguer's own discomfort in making this case; for he must accept as a tolerable cost the severe repression -- persecution is in fact a better word -- that the Pretoria government has institutionalized and imposes broadly every day. This rationalization that you may see being argued all over the place now is that it hardly seems fair to pick on white South Africa's brutal repression since terrible ethnic brutalities are being perpetrated elsewhere throughout Black Africa at the moment.

"Everybody does it," as someone once said. But this hardly fits with the prior argument. It is having it both ways to claim that the white South African government must be cosseted and, in some form, preserved because it is all that stands between that part of the world and a descent into brutality and that its own brutality must be countenanced because it is no worse than the brutality of those states whose very example it is so important to avoid. Come on.

In fact there are respects in which anyone who cherishes the values that, faithfully observed or not, we regard as the definition of our enlightened Western culture will consider the behavior of the white, industrialized, advanced peoples of South Africa "worse." We are not dealing here with improvised, bloody atrocities or score settling. And we are most surely not dealing with something resembling the protracted former institutionalized segregation in the American South. We are dealing with a thought-out, detailed, deliberate, endlessly refined and amended racial policy whose consequences determine absolutely what the South African nonwhite person may be and do: where he may go to school, where he may live, the degree (if any) of his enfranchisement, the degree (if any) of his freedom to go from one town or even suburb to another overnight, whether he may live with his family and still keep his job.

I don't think the Nazi analogy you sometimes hear from the critics of apartheid is at all a fair one. Blacks are carted, in great numbers, to places they don't want to be, solely because they are black. But it is unfair to compare the admittedly terrible conditions that may await them there with the incomparable horror of the death camps. What is resonant of the Nazi mentality is the preoccupation with race as the basis for how a person may live.

Last February in the South African Parliament, the minister of home affairs was asked if there had been any racial reclassifications of individuals during 1984. He replied, yes there had been, and gave the following figures that may give you an idea of the infinite pains that are taken on this subject: "Colored to White 518, White to Colored 14, Chinese to White 7, White to Chinese 2, Malay to White 3, White to Indian 1, Indian to Colored 50, Colored to Indian 54, Indian to Malay 17, Malay to Indian 26, Black to Colored 89, Colored to Black 5 . . ." and so on. There are laws and boards of appeal that preside over all this classification and reclassification of individuals, deciding who is what. A white person, in case you're interested, "means a person who (a) in appearance obviously is a white person and who is not generally accepted as a colored person or (b) is generally accepted as a white person and who is not in appearance obviously not a white person. . . . Notwithstanding anything in the above section (a) in deciding whether any person is in appearance obviously a white person or not a white person within the meaning of the definition of white person, his habits, education and speech and deportment and demeanor . . . shall be taken into account. . . ."

How can those who do cherish the truest Western values live with this? How can those who have asked us (justly, in my opinion) to care about the fate of oppressed populations, whether Soviet Jews or Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, live with this? Politically, to have influence with whatever new dispensation is coming, and morally, to save our self-respect, we should be on the right side.