Nearly three months after it took effect, South Africa's state of emergency decree has become a political albatross that has not significantly reduced black unrest yet cannot be readily removed.

On the surface, the sweeping decree and the4,960 arrests that have followed have been a dramatic demonstration of state power, as steady and unyielding as the drone of armored personnel carriers lumbering through the dusty streets of black townships.

But when historians recall this moment in South African history, they may associate with it a different sound -- that of hinges slowly turning, of a door closing on an era of unchallenged white domination and reopening on a new and uncertain age of constant upheavals.

Today, another of the milestones that have marked the conflict was recorded with the announcement of the death of a white soldier, the first killed since the Army was sent into the townships a year ago, in a clash with rioters outside Port Elizabeth.

The emergency was designed to restore a calm that would allow South Africa's white rulers to carry on with their measured policy of self-proclaimed "reform."

But since the decree took effect July 21 in 36 cities and towns, the daily rate of deaths resulting from political violence has more than doubled, ideological lines have hardened between white and black and between the government's supporters and its opposition, and the plight of moderates on both sides has worsened.

Rather than setting the stage for peaceful change, the crackdown on opponents has shrunk further the already limited possibility that blacks would come to the government's carefully controlled bargaining table.

The reform program itself, revealed during the past two months in a painfully slow and reluctant rhetorical dance of veils by the country's aging political strongman, has fallen far short of black aspirations.

At the same time, the emergency triggered a tough reaction from South Africa's international bankers and its putative friends in the West that has revealed just how vulnerable this country is to the economic sanctions its leaders once dismissed offhandedly.

Meetings with western creditors to reschedule debt payments that South Africa froze last month are due to begin in two weeks, and officials undoubtedly would like to be able to offer a firm idea of when the emergency will be suspended. But the government also faces five parliamentary by-elections Oct. 30 and cannot be seen to be easing its stance against opponents until the violence eases, for fear of white voter backlash.

"They are not in control of the situation, and they do not know where they are going, which is a very dangerous state of affairs," said Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu of the government he opposes. "If they lift the state of emergency, it will seem as if they are giving in to pressure."

Criticism of the emergency is not limited to longstanding opponents like Tutu, last year's Nobel Peace laureate. Business leaders who at first cautiously welcomed the measures long since have had a public change of heart. So have some of the government's traditional supporters.

"It was bungled right from the beginning," said Piet Muller, an editor and columnist for the influential Afrikaans-language newspaper Beeld, who originally had welcomed the decree as an unfortunate necessity. "It has not only gotten us some very bad international publicity, but it has simply served to aggravate matters here."

Some Cabinet ministers are believed to share that view, although none will say so publicly. Law and Order Minister Louis le Grange did not respond to a written request for comment on the emergency and when it might end. But in a speech Friday night in Queenstown, a town in eastern Cape Province where violence has intensified in recent weeks, he said the unrest was "subsiding" due to efforts by police and the military. "We will eventually normalize the situations," le Grange promised.

South African unrest has been pushed off the front page in recent weeks not only by competing news from elsewhere but by the numbing repetition of the violence, now in its 14th month. But while attention has declined, the level of violence has not. Squeezed into submission in the Vaal Triangle south of Johannesburg where it first began, it has spread into new areas such as the western and northeastern Cape and the port city of Durban.

Both the number and frequency of deaths has risen steadily, according to figures compiled by the South African Institute of Race Relations. From Sept. 3, 1984, when rioting broke out in the Vaal townships, until the end of that year, the institute reported 149 deaths, or 0.9 per day. There were 317 more deaths between Jan. 1 and the emergency decree of July 20, or 1.6 per day.

Between July 21 and Oct. 7, the institute recorded 278 more deaths -- 3.5 per day, or more than double the rate before the decree.

This past weekend was not atypical. According to police reports, unrest occurred in 26 townships scattered around the country. Six persons were killed, including the white soldier who was stabbed to death yesterday..

The five black deaths included one who was burned by a mob, one whose charred remains were discovered by police and three apparently shot by police, including a 13-year-old boy whose death is under investigation. Six policemen were injured, as was a policemen's wife.

The emergency decree was designed to crush the unrest by giving police broad powers of arrest in designated areas. But many contend that use of the decree has only exacerbated the situation and contributed to an atmosphere of fear of violence in many townships.

Soweto, the country's largest black urban area, was relatively peaceful before the decree. But in recent weeks, following a police crackdown on school boycotts, several of its sections have become the scene of daily running battles between rock-throwing youths and security forces and between the youths and blacks branded as collaborators with white rule.

"People are being shot, the schools are in chaos, the garbage isn't being picked up because the local government can't function," said Nthato Motlana, a respected Soweto civic leader. He says the local black officials whom the government sponsored and sought to promote as community spokesmen silently have abdicated, fearing for their own lives.

Tutu, Motlana and other black moderates, having failed to persuade the government to bargain with authentic black leaders such as imprisoned nationalist Nelson Mandela, say their voices are being drowned out by more radical calls. They believe it is radical leader Steve Tshwete's demands at recent funerals for blacks to burn white areas, rather than Tutu's pleas for nonviolence, that are capturing the imaginations and the anger of a new generation of black youths.

Some see in the chaos the birth of a revolution. Joe Slovo, exiled military strategist of the African National Congress, the leading black resistance movement, spoke in an interview earlier this year of a convergence of two key elements: an awakening of defiance inside the townships at the same moment there is a crisis of confidence within the white community. The result, he believes, is a situation as ripe for revolt as the shah's Iran.

But there is at least one critical difference between Pretoria and Tehran. The shah's army shared the same Moslem culture and values as his opponents. When the mob came, his soldiers killed dozens of protesters, but eventually they turned against the shah.

There is no such shared community of values between South Africa's predominantly white security forces and its black rioters, despite their joint profession of Christianity. Instead, most whites see their privileges and their future directly threatened by black aspirations. It is impossible to envisage a situation where the security forces would side with blacks against the white government.

In his Port Elizabeth speech two weeks ago, President Pieter W. Botha made clear that his government would continue its crackdown on opposition and restated his view that measures such as the emergency were a necessary companion to his reform program.

"Actions by our security forces . . . are essential expressly to protect the process of peaceful reform," said Botha, "and to ensure the necessary stability without which reform will be undermined by violence and revolution."

But Botha's cryptic language and finger-wagging style have given little hope to black moderates. His recent offers to restore citizenship to blacks and to "improve" South Africa's notorious pass laws have not deflected attention from what many consider the real issue: the end of the white monopoly on political power.

His Port Elizabeth speech also contained a not-so-veiled threat against black moderates who have refused to embrace his offers. "They will be expected to make a choice," Botha warned. "Leaders cannot pay lip service to the principle of negotiation while at the same time attempting to cover their rears against radical elements which do not want to negotiate. One cannot serve two masters at the same time."

While it is unclear what the immediate future holds, some analysts believe that the government eventually will declare "victory" and lift the emergency in order to ease international pressure on South Africa, although few expect it to happen soon.

Others anticipate a further crackdown and fear that the government will turn increasingly to the security option as it sees its reform program faltering. Helen Suzman, a white longtime opposition member of Parliament, warns of a new massive show of force. Motlana speaks of "an era of almost permanent unrest."

Tutu says the government may yet succeed in temporarily crushing the unrest, but he believes the victory will prove hollow. "You may get stability of sorts, but that stability is superficial, it is brittle, simply because you are not dealing with the root cause," he said. "You can force children to go to school, and you may be thrilled that classes are back to normal. But the root cause is they hate Bantu segregated education, and at the first opportunity they will boycott again."

In a Gallup Poll released Friday nearly two-thirds of the urban whites surveyed said they believed black-majority rule would never come to South Africa. A few weeks ago, a different survey indicated that 80 percent of urban blacks will settle for nothing less. The gap between those two statistics is the chasm between white intransigence and black aspirations. It is also the measure of the conflict that has begun.