Joy Harenden was arrested on July 26. She was taken to the Diepkloof Prison, strip-searched and put into a small cell. It contained a metal bed, a wash basin, a cup, a toilet with no seat and -- by legal requirement -- a Bible. She read it constantly.

Joy Harenden's arrest and solitary confinement for 13 days represents a paradox of the kind South Africa seems to have in abundance. Consider that Harenden is a white, 23-year-old college graduate. She was arrested without a warrant and held without ever seeing a judge. Her crime -- if you can call it that -- was political dissent. She is implacably opposed to apartheid.

And yet there is more to consider. Joy Harenden talked to me in her office where she works in South Africa's anti-conscription movement. She had no compunction against giving me her name, knowing it might be published. As Harenden might be the first to concede, South Africa is a most peculiar police state.

That, of course, is what American conservatives have been saying for years -- and they have something of a point. Compared with a lot of countries, many here in Africa and certainly the Soviet Union and its satellites, South Africa is not such a bad place. In many other countries, a Joy Harenden would simply have disappeared.

Of course, what's true for Harenden is not necessarily true for blacks. Steve Biko died of injuries he sustained while in jail. But even the Biko case is a South African paradox since his widow won a substantial money judgment in court.

Even now, newspapers report allegations of torture in the jails and demands (by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Cape Town) for investigations into police brutality. And in Durban, a judge ordered the police not to assault a particular 20- year-old man they are holding. Mr. Justice Wilson was acting on the petition of the jailed man's father.

Clearly, this is not the Soviet Union, nor is it Chile. If that is the case, don't American conservatives who say "lay off South Africa" have a point? In other words, why are both the government and American liberals going in for so much South Africa bashing when the gulags of Russia still hold political prisoners?

The answer is that wrong is wrong, anywhere. South Africa is not to be congratulated because it is better than the Soviet Union. It ought to be condemned for being worse than other places -- and worse than it has to be. The fact is that the country's very respect for the judiciary and for the parliamentary system (the present government could be voted out, after all) gives the United States the leverage it needs to effect change.

It is hardly a historical accident that Mohandas Gandhi originated passive resistance while living in South Africa. As with India, where Gandhi was instrumental in winning independence from Britain, South Africa also cherishes institutions that can be used against itself. Gandhi used the British courts and the international (especially English) press. The same institutions are being used here.

Unfortunately, South Africa is not British India. The ruling elite cannot strike its colors, quick-step it to the boats and steam back to England -- bagpipes wailing, women crying and writers writing the BBC serials of the future. The Afrikaners are a 300-year-old culture, complete with their own language and a history of hardship and travail that makes the opening of the American West seem another day on the links. They have nowhere to go -- and most of them don't want to go anywhere anyway. Like Zionists, like Mormons, they believe they are where God wants them.

Maybe that part of the paradox that is South Africa's good side -- its respect for parliamentary democracy and the judiciary -- is not as important as the country's defenderake it out to be. It is secondary to what is perceived by some, including the government, as a fight for survival. What's important is not that Biko's widow won a money settlement, but that his jailors may have killed him with impunity. What's important is not that Harenden was released on the 13th day, but that she might not have been -- especially if she were a radical black.

South Africa's hesitant police state, burdened by the collective conscience of the country's many good people, has to be judged on its own terms. It may not be as bad as Soviet Russia's, but that may be for the worst of all reasons: As yet, it does not have to be.