To appreciate the bullying nature of the South African government and its mindless resort to coercion, you have first to understand the "crime" committed by Winnie Mandela -- she went home. That's it. Mrs. Mandela, wife of the long-imprisoned leader of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela, and a strong leader in her own right, spent years under an oppressive banning order -- combining internal exile and severe restrictions on her daily activity -- which she defied in a variety of small ways. Recently, the South African government, in what it seemed to regard as an act of great generosity, eased the terms of the order that had required her to live in remote Brandfort in the Orange Free State, but enjoined her from living in her home in the Black township of Soweto near Johannesburg. Twice she went there and twice she was routed by police, who came into her house, pushed her around and dragged her from the premises.

We stress the simple and profoundly nonviolent character of this so-called "crime," not just to point out the disproportion between what Mrs. Mandela did and the reaction of the security forces -- although that will surely strike people here as yet further evidence of the brutishness of the South African government. We stress it also because it so clearly reveals how untenable and self-destructive is the course that government has chosen.

To an American visitor or even an American onlooker from abroad, it often seems incomprehensible that there has been so relatively little peaceful protest or resistance by blacks and their white sympathizers in South Africa. Why do so many people simply walk through the prescribed doors and submit to the painful, rigorous separations, indignities and inhibitions of apartheid? Where are the sit- ins and other familiar forms of civil disobedience? The answer has been that the white government's reaction to such gestures when they were undertaken -- opening fire on peaceful resisters -- long since discouraged such action. The only recourse, it would then be argued, was the violent clandestine attack, the growing guerrilla enterprise, responding gunfire.

We have surely seen more of the latter activities in recent months. Yet nothing has had the power, emotional and moral, in our view, of the expulsion of Mrs. Mandela from her own home and her determination not to submit to the tyranny of the government. Her resistance shows, first, just how electrifying such an organized peaceful resistance could be. And it shows, second, how pitiful and doomed and evil is the apartheid fantasy the government seeks to impose and maintain: Grown men -- armed soldiers and cops -- running around threatening physical punishment for those who merely go to the wrong (i.e., forbidden) place at the wrong time or (under the terms of various banning orders) say the wrong thing to the wrong number or kind of people on the wrong occasion. What fear they must live in! How preposterous the "security" they have fashioned for themselves! It depends on a whole nation's accepting their elaborate protocols of who may be where when and what may be said when they get there.

Winnie Mandela's defiance is her dignity. The guys with guns secured the house. But theirs was an empty victory. By its act the South African government revealed not its strength, but its fear and weakness.