Shortly before my recent trip to South Africa, my young cousin confided that he was afraid for my safety. That seemed reasonable, because television news almost nightly showed scenes of violence and reports of a rising body count. I tried some reassuring. Most of the dead had been killed in places and under circumstances that a journalist could avoid. My explanation did no good. The boy, it turned out, thought the South African government wanted to kill me.

Examine his logic. He knew I had written columns denouncing apartheid. He himself felt an almost physical repugnance for the policies of the South African government, and he knew, from our casual conversations, that I felt the same way. If that was the case, he reasoned, why were the South Africans allowing me in the country? After all, they had to know what I would write.

Adults are supposed to have the answers, but I had none. And I still don't. But two explanations suggest themselves, and they both bode ill for the future of South Africa-U.S. relations and, in fact, for the future of South Africa itself. The first explanation is that no matter what the South African government may look like to Americans, it considers itself a Western democracy and does its best to behave accordingly. That means admitting most foreign journalists who apply, rejecting only those whose reporting they think has already proven hostile.

The second explanation is much harder for Americans to understand. It is that official South Africa really thinks that once you get to see its country, understand its problems and complexities, then you will also understand why the government does what it does. For instance, it is almost incomprehensible for whites to hear criticism of the government for imposing emergency rule on much of the country when the decree is ostensibly supposed to save black lives.

Now, though, South Africa has imposed severe restrictions on the press. The result will be that Americans will not be able to turn on the television set and see scenes of rioting blacks or, as happened recently, the police entrapping young rioters and then opening fire on them. The lack of pictures does not mean that such scenes are not being repeated daily. It only means that television crews have been banned from the 38 districts where the emergency decree applies.

The new restrictions not only tighten the hold the police have on the country but, sooner or later, will diminish South Africa as a TV news story and thus as an issue in this country. But this kind of censorship, while effective, has its costs. In South Africa's case it is its image of itself as a Western democracy.

The press edicts represent capitulation, exhaustion -- a government that no longer thinks it can make its case to the world or, worse yet, maybe even cares to. No longer can official South Africa think that a sojourn in that country will swing a journalist to the government's point of view -- that in appreciating the complexity they will also come to appreciate the necessity of racial segregation.

In censoring both the domestic and foreign press, by making it subordinate to any police officer on the spot, South Africa illustrates the corrosive effect of apartheid -- how the efforts of a minority to subjugate a majority sooner or later robs the minority of its values. In this case, South African whites are slowly surrendering their very image of themselves as Western, Christian, democratic. Slowly, they are conceding that these values are secondary to the highest value of all: holding power.

The press edicts move South Africa closer to the image held by my young relative and farther from the image it once had of itself. He saw it as a totalitarian regime that was capable of doing anything. It's beginning to see itself the same way.