It's easy to get so caught up in the unexpected fights, the political turmoil, the sense that change is finally about to come to this troubled land, that you sometimes need to be reminded of what the turmoil is all about.

My reminder came the other night at the Market Theater, where I saw a portrayal of the (Steve) Biko Inquest.

The makeup of the audience was one of the surprises that one so quickly comes to take for granted: mixed couples and racially integrated parties of theatergoers sipping pre-theater cocktails and exchanging pleasantries in this land of apartheid, without obvious self-consciousness.

But then begins the performance: a powerful, condensed, reputedly quite accurate portrayal of the inquest into Biko's death after 26 days in incommunicado detention. You hear no word from Biko himself -- the play is set after his death. What you get, while listening to the official explanations and buck passing, is a reminder of the corruption and the physical and mental brutality required to maintain this awful system.

You know it already, of course. You know it from visits to Soweto, where a significant portion of the huge population lives in utter squalor, where children now on strike from school wander aimlessly about, where the armored personnel carriers called Casspirs are a common, thoroughly detested part of the landscape.

You know it from hearing, at a recent press conference, eyewitnesses to police violence that left 13 people, mostly elderly women, dead after a protest march in the Pretoria township of Mamelodi.

But this knowledge fades urprisingly fast when you return to the somewhat unreal world of the cities, and you begin to understand why the authorities have put such heavy restrictions on journalistic forays into the townships. A few print reporters manage to get around the restrictions, but no one takes any outlandish chances for fear of having his newspaper shut down. More telling by far, though, is the absence of television pictures. (Reporters, photographers and TV cameramen, when they are lucky enough to obtain permits to enter the townships, are under standing orders to put their notepads and cameras aside when an emergency situation -- meaning anything worth recording -- arises.)

As in America, there is the sense here that it didn't happen if it's not on television. Even when you know it happened, because you read about it, the absence of pictures keeps it from registering as deeply as it otherwise might. People outside the townships -- which is to say white people -- got precious little on their state-run TV channels of what was happening in the townships even before the recent press restrictions. Now they get virtually nothing except "talking heads" reports. The violence that they don't see doesn't become a part of their dinner table or cocktail time conversation. It doesn't intrude unbidden into their thoughts. It doesn't quite exist.

In short, from the viewpoint of the authorities, the press restrictions are working. Not perfectly, but well enough for now. They sometimes pay a price when, as in the Mamelodi slaughter, the reporters (and by extension, their audience) are forced to choose between the statements of self-proclaimed eyewitnesses with an interest in making things sound as gruesome as possible and the statements of the authorities, which regularly turn out to have understated the facts by a wide margin. Professional reporters, had they been allowed at the scene, might have provided a fairly realistic picture of what took place.

But even as it works, the government's keep-it-hidden policy contains the seeds of disaster. By masking both the level of official violence and the growing resistance to it, the government may be misleading the ruling white minority into a false sense that there is still plenty of time to work things out.

For if the police and military violence -- indeed the violence of apartheid itself -- isn't quite real for whites, who don't see it on television, it is terribly real for its victims, who increasingly are demanding relief on pain of rendering the country a bloody and ungovernable mess.

The disparities a visitor sees as he moves about the cities look not much more appalling than ordinary class differences.

And then the Biko play restores context. The deaths in detention neither began nor ended with Biko. The most recent (only a fool would say the last) was recorded in 1985.

Nor have the detentions, more often than not without charges being brought, abated. The 290 detentions of last week brought to more than 6,200 the number of people detained since the emergency regulations went into effect on July 21. The authorities -- perhaps again to keep whites from understanding the seriousness of the situation -- don't even bother anymore to release the names of the detainees, though it is believed that 1,200 are still being held.

Maybe one day the government will learn that it is not the press reporting of facts but the awful facts themselves that constitute the threat to peace in South Africa.

The program notes include a 1971 Biko speech that ends with this passage: "The tripartite system of fear -- that of whites fearing the blacks, blacks fearing whites, and the government fearing blacks and wishing to allay the fear among whites -- makes it difficult to establish rapport between the two segments of the community. The fact of living apart adds a different dimension and perhaps a more serious one: it makes the aspirations ofhe two groups diametrically opposed.

"The white strategy so far has been to systematically break down the resistance of blacks to the point where the latter would accept crumbs from the white table. This we have shown we reject unequivocally. And now the stage is therefore set for a very interesting turn of events."