The pictures of the Soweto slums, the Crossroads shantytowns, the sprawling expanses of squalor, poverty and despair, are what well-meaning journalists and reformers hold up to the world to say: see for yourself the bitter fruit of apartheid!

The pictures, even if only word pictures, serve powerfully to turn the world's stomach against apartheid. It is one of the better things journalism has done.

And yet there is this unsettling thought, gleaned as much from the American experience as from South Africa: apartheid caused it, but ending apartheid won't cure it.

I look at the unbelievable stretches of a Crossroads, several kilometers on a side, with its endless rows of corrugated tin hovels, ragged children, mangy dogs and utterly defeated men and women, and I curse the system that produced it. Then I drive away in my rental car and wonder what it will take to restore dignity and hope and humanity to such a place, to render such a place unnecessary.

To ask the question is to answer it. Repealing the Group Areas Act, which assigns people to residential areas based on their ethnicity, wiping out the laws against mixed marriages, eliminating the detestable pass laws and influx-control laws, even granting the full franchise to these hapless people, will leave their awful condition fundamentally unchanged.

I think particularly of the youngsters whose growing and irrepressible militancy will get much of the credit when change finally comes to South Africa. These are the adolescent revolutionaries who put their bodies on the line, challenging the Casspirs (the armored personnel carriers used by the occupying forces of the military) with nothing more than stones and petrol bombs, who sacrifice their woefully limited educational opportunities in an effort to force the government to improve nonwhite schools, who go to jail and, too frequently, to their graves, in noble sacrifice.

Nothing seems clearer than that the youngsters who make the greatest sacrifice against apartheid are the least likely to reap any benefit when apartheid finally falls.

I am astonished that this fact, which now seems so obvious to me, seems not to figure at all in our prescriptions for South Africa. But, then, why should we see it in South Africa when we fail to see it here at home?

Only fairly recently has even the black leadership here started to confront the problem of what we now call the black "underclass," those people -- especially the children -- whose ambition, hope, attitudes and prospects have been destroyed by racism but whose plight would remain fundamentally unchanged if racism were eliminated from American life. Our national government keeps urging the nonsense that ending official racism is all that is necessary, that anything more amounts to "reverse discrimination."

In South Africa, as here, there are some for whom transforming the system will make all the difference in the world. I think of the bright and eager students and their doggedly hopeful parents who do everything they can to improve their prospects, even with the full force of the system arrayed against them. I think of the irrepressible entrepreneurs who make good money selling shoes and groceries to their captive clientele. I think of the man in the black Capetown township of Langa who, without even access to normal bank loans, has put together a fleet of 46 Mercedes Benz buses. Given half a chance, these people might be running a South African version of Safeway Stores or Greyhound Lines. To them, liberation will come as a godsend.

But for too many of the rest, whose humanity has been ripped out by state- ordained racism, liberation will be nothing more than a word.

We sit here in our righteous outrage and demand the one-man-one-vote franchise as a cure for the incredible array of problems facing our black brothers in South Africa.

And yet when I look into the faces of the youngsters, I know that the franchise will mean as little to them as it does to their counterparts in Watts or Hough or Anacostia. They could wake up some historic morning to the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela and still go to bed that night as doomed and as damned as ever.