It is morning in the largest city in South Africa, a country torn by racial strife that has claimed about 1,000 lives during the past 16 months. But the scene here looks a lot like St. Louis or Cleveland, not at all like Beirut or even Belfast.

Blacks and whites share the sidewalks. They carry briefcases, newspapers and shopping bags, not pistols or rocks. The trains are on time. Traffic lights are working. The banks are open, as is the stock exchange. The only police in sight are on traffic duty, not riot patrol.

This portrait of tranquility can be viewed every workday morning in the business districts of every major city in South Africa. It is beguiling, puzzling -- and in many ways misleading. For below the surface, out of the sight of most of the 5 million whites who rule this country, South Africa's foundations are beginning to crack.

Black unrest and protest have damaged this country's economy, done permanent harm to its standing abroad and threatened its vital links to the West. They have derailed, and very likely destroyed, the white government's carefully constructed strategy of limited political change. At the same time, they have helped build the confidence of blacks that time is on their side and that three centuries of white rule may be coming to an end.

But the main achievement of the black unrest and protest thus far has been more subtle: they have managed, for the first time in a generation, to pierce the protective cocoon of power, privilege and silence that the apartheid system has built around South Africa's whites. They have exposed an economic and political vulnerability that this society had long managed to conceal -- and in the process have damaged white morale and shaken one of the world's most entrenched governments.

The damage at this point is mostly economic; the state's formidable military and police power remains entirely intact. The security forces have managed to confine almost all of the unrest to the bleak, segregated townships that ring South Africa's cities like a noose. By any measure, the government looks virtually immune to violent overthrow.

But for the first time, there is a tension and contradiction between the state's military and economic power. Unbridled use of the former -- whether it be the deaths from police fire of 20 blacks in the eastern Cape Province township of Langa last March or the exercise of extraordinary powers under the five-month-old state of emergency -- causes direct, measurable harm to the latter.

"When you look at the basic power equations and at the hard core of state power, probably nothing much has changed," said Hermann Giliomee, one of the country's most noted political scientists. "But what makes 1985 different is it spelled out for whites what may be in store the longer they hold out."

This three-part series, written by a correspondent who has witnessed firsthand the conflict between black power and white control, seeks to look back at South Africa's year of struggle to define what has changed and sift for clues about the future.

It was a year when the young blacks of this country's segregated townships challenged the white government for control of their streets. In the process, western banks, corporate board rooms and even the White House joined in actions that shook the government.

It was also a year of increasing polarization in which the middle ground between the government and its radical foes shrank dramatically. Political moderates on both sides found their constituencies and credibility eroded along with their ability to influence events.

South Africa now seems to have stepped down a long, twisted road. An older generation of leaders of both the government and its main black opposition is soon to step down, and a younger one looks all too ready to continue their war. Although the death toll remains comparatively low, a process of self-destruction has set in that could lead to a tragedy as large and convulsive as the liberation war that claimed as many as 1 million lives in Algeria a generation ago.

This series begins with South Africa's whites, who first came to these shores 333 years ago and gradually developed their own African-tinged culture and vernacular. These Afrikaners, who were the first white settlers on the African continent, who consider themselves as much a part of Africa as black natives and comprise 60 percent of South Africa's whites, have managed to cling to power long after whites in the rest of the African continent have relinquished it and moved on. Earlier Crises Overcome

They have overcome political crises before. After the mass protests of 1960 and the Soweto riots of 1976, many believed white rule was on the verge of collapse or dramatic change. But as Oxford historian Richard W. Johnson noted after the Soweto uprising, "The most striking feature of the demise of white South Africa is that it has constantly been prophesied and that it has not come about."

This year has not brought about the demise of white rule, but it has seen new holes in the once solid facade of white power. After decades of knowing exactly who they were and where they were going, South Africa's white rulers now seem to have lost their sure grip. They are trapped in a crisis that took them by surprise and each move they make seems only to ensnare them further.

The July 21 state of emergency, designed to restore order and rally white support, led to more deaths and considerable international criticism. The Sept. 1 partial freeze on debt repayments, designed to stabilize the country's plummeting currency, the rand, and keep foreign capital inside the country, undermined investor confidence and failed to strengthen the rand. Charges of police torture and brutality and the recent dismissal of treason charges against leaders of the opposition United Democratic Front have exposed the government to further international condemnation.

Pretoria's plan for converting its military domination of the southern Africa region into new diplomatic ties has collapsed following revelations that its military clandestinely aided Mozambican rebels in violation of its peace accord with the Maputo government. Even its once ironclad relationship with a sympathetic Reagan administration has veered toward collapse.

Faced with this reality, some whites have drawn radical conclusions and begun to contemplate the prospect of a black-majority government, perhaps even one led by the outlawed African National Congress, the main black resistance movement. Some white business leaders and liberal politicians openly defied President Pieter W. Botha by journeying to Lusaka, Zambia, to meet with ANC leaders.

But most whites still appear to believe they can hold on to power indefinitely. Recent surveys indicate that more than 80 percent of Afrikaners still support laws preserving segregated schools and residential areas and that more than 60 percent of whites believe black rule is not inevitable.

"Most whites are totally oblivious," said the Rev. Nico Smith, a Dutch Reformed minister whose own plan to visit the ANC in Lusaka with a group of church leaders was blocked by the government. "The more intelligent ones are aware something is wrong but they don't know what. They have become captives of their own structures."

Others have sought to fill the leadership gap with little success. White conservatives, who formally broke with the ruling National Party in 1982 to take an even tougher stand, made some gains in recent parliamentary by-elections, but few analysts believe they will pose a major threat to the government by 1989, when the next general elections are likely to occur.

The business community, frustrated by the growing economic crisis, also has sought greater influence. But business, which is dominated by the English-speaking white minority, lacks both the leverage and the will to challenge the government. Most business spokesmen supported Botha's new constitution in 1983 and welcomed the state of emergency, although many now have recanted. As Anthony Bloom, chairman of the Premier Group, a major holding company, put it, most are "unwilling to stand up and be seen in open conflict with government."

White politics looks unglued primarily because the radical ideology that held it together for two generations is dying -- and the new ideology designed to replace it is stillborn.

Apartheid was more than a set of laws enforcing racial segregation. It was a total system designed by the Nationalists, who came to power in 1948, to enshrine South Africa as an Afrikaner nation by preserving for them permanent political domination. It became for Afrikaners what Israel, founded the same year, was for Jews -- a homeland and the fulfillment of a biblical dream.

By fettering blacks in laws limiting their mobility, employment and education, apartheid weakened the Afrikaners' most feared opponent. By establishing a huge, bloated bureaucracy to administer itself, apartheid offered economic deliverance to Afrikaners, awarding them the incomes and job security they had never enjoyed under English rule -- an estimated 46 percent of white workers are employed directly or indirectly by the government. Structures of Apartheid

By establishing independent tribal "homelands" where blacks theoretically could enjoy full political rights, apartheid provided an elaborate, though transparent, moral justification for its cruelties.

But, like the political party that created it, apartheid has run out of steam. The costs of the bureaucracy, bearable during the boom years of the 1960s and early '70s, have grown too burdensome for an economy under stress. The need for skilled labor to service the sophisticated economy of 1985 -- South Africa is estimated to be short as many as 500,000 skilled workers -- has grown too great for a system expressly designed to smother black achievement, not nurture it. Similarly, the party's visionaries and true believers of the '50s, who designed the apartheid ideal with missionary zeal, have been succeeded by gray politicians widely viewed by white critics here as more interested in retaining power and privilege than in furthering a mythology.

These are practical politicians, and the Soweto riots of 1976 and further spasms of unrest in 1980 convinced them that urban blacks would never fit into the homelands scheme. Instead they devised a plan to forge a new middle-class alliance with the black urban elite, bringing it into a system that would grant it privileges yet preserve Afrikaner control. The first step was to be a new tricameral parliament with separate houses for whites, mixed-race "Coloreds" and Indians -- but not for blacks, whose exclusion was to become one of the issues triggering the unrest. Later, urban blacks would be included as well in some broader national structure.

Viewed through the peculiar prism of Afrikanerdom, the changes looked dramatic. Black trade unions were legalized and outdated appendages of apartheid, such as the legal reservation of certain job categories to whites, were abolished. The permanence of urban blacks, previously considered temporary sojourners in "white" cities, was acknowledged.

Critics called the plan "neoapartheid" because it entrenched Afrikaner rule even as it expanded its base. But its architects called it a "process," and themselves "reformers." The injustices of apartheid, inadvertent and otherwise, would be identified and eliminated -- one at a time, in a painstakingly slow process that would have the twin advantages of being defensibly progressive yet totally under white control.

"Apartheid is dead," they proclaimed, a statement belied and ridiculed by the profusion of laws and customs that keep South Africa's suburbs, bedrooms, classrooms and swimming pools strictly segregated. What they meant was that apartheid no longer was necessary, that like a political Ice Age it would gradually, over decades, be thawed. Pace of Acceptable Change

The pace of acceptable change is illustrated in the government's decision to begin opening all-white downtown shopping districts to black businessmen, first announced on Feb. 28, 1984. Nearly two years later, applications from local communities are mired in red tape by an unwieldy and conservative bureaucracy and not a single district has been desegregated.

The new reform concept reached its apogee in November 1983 when whites approved by 68 percent an intricately designed new constitution. But there was a missing element in this political game, one whose absence went largely unnoticed by whites even though it cast a shadow over the entire proceedings.

What was missing was the approval of any of the ethnic groups to be affected. The idea of Colored and Indian referendums on the new constitution was scrapped when it became clear that neither group was likely to vote yes. The idea of a black referendum was never considered.

In effect, the white reformers had fallen victim to the ideology they said they were discarding. Apartheid had taken urban blacks out of white areas, deposited them in townships or distant homelands, dehumanized and depoliticized them, leaving in white eyes strictly economic units -- cheap, disposable labor. When black leaders arose, they generally wound up in jail or exile. So when the time came, not only was there no one to consult, but the very concept of consultation, of enlisting black support, was radical and alien.

New local governing bodies in the townships were supposed to win black support. Instead they generated wrath. Taking office following elections with minuscule turnouts, they lacked legitimacy, yet proceeded to assert their authority by seeking rent and utility rate increases. Those became the fuse to ignite a storehouse of explosive anger.

The unrest began in the Vaal townships south of Johannesburg on Sept. 3, 1984 -- the same day the new constitution took effect. From then on, the two were inextricably linked: As the unrest continued and spread, the reform process began unraveling, then fell apart.

With its undertrained and understaffed police force -- its 45,000 members nationwide are not much more than that of New York City -- and its lack of reliable intelligence in the townships, the government found itself trapped between halfhearted reform and halfhearted repression. Each township shooting, every case of police overreaction exacerbated the problem, recruiting new black opposition, making it impossible for black moderates to be seen talking to the government. The state of emergency, originally declared in 36 cities and towns, was an official admission that the situation was out of control.

At first officials argued that nothing had changed, that the reform process was still on track. A few thugs and militants were terrorizing the townships, keeping moderates from the bargaining table. Once they were removed from the scene, all would return to normal, they said. But more than 7,000 arrests under the emergency have failed to achieve the goal. Even some of the homeland leaders, the most collaborationist of all blacks, told President Botha at a recent meeting in Pretoria that they cannot be seen negotiating with the government.

As a result, some white officials are now conceding publicly that something has gone badly wrong. "There certainly has arisen a very strong frustration and bitterness amongst black leaders," said Gerrit Viljoen, the Cabinet minister in charge of education and black economic development, in a recent interview. Viljoen not only blames manipulation by radicals, but also what he calls the "wrong perception" that the new tricameral parliament meant the permanent exclusion of blacks from national political rights. He concedes that South Africa is in a political crisis and that getting blacks to the table, as he put it, "is perhaps our biggest problem." Good Life in Suburbs

Still, for a long time most whites felt no impact. Perhaps the maid didn't come to work one day. But the unrest was out of sight and out of mind. The good life of the white suburbs was untouched.

But if apartheid protects whites, it also isolates them and leaves them dependent for knowledge on a government whose own sources of information are less than reliable. When the shock came, both were unprepared. It hit where they were most vulnerable -- the economy.

It is one of the world's most top-heavy and unbalanced economic systems, an inverted pyramid on a fragile base. At the top is a luxury, consumption-oriented economy, whose spending patterns resemble those of the United States, the society white South Africans most seek to emulate. The old Boer War image of the Afrikaner as spartan commando carrying all his possessions on horseback is as outdated as that of the American plainsman. South Africa until recently boasted 11 automobile manufacturers, including a Mercedes-Benz plant and the only BMW factory outside Germany. There are swimming pools in most white backyards and even many of the poorest households employ black servants.

This aspiring version of Beverly Hills sits atop a Third World society of nearly 25 million blacks, whose average income, birth and infant mortality rates reflect those of its African neighbors. They have provided the reservoir of cheap labor that for generations has kept the system functioning, but at the same time their own needs and demands have increased geometrically -- South Africa's black education budget alone has increased more than 1,000 percent over the last decade, although per capita expenditure for blacks is still only one-seventh the amount for whites.

South Africa has Africa's most highly industrialized economy, but it remains dominated by minerals such as gold, diamonds and coal, which comprise 75 percent of its export earnings. During the 1970s, dramatic increases in the price of gold papered over cracks in the economy. But gold and other mineral prices generally have stagnated in the 1980s while South Africa's once robust farming sector has come to resemble some of its weaker African neighbors due to drought and a decline in government subsidies.

Diverse demands from urban blacks, middle-class whites and the apartheid bureaucracy have also caused economic strains. Despite a 25 to 30 percent pay increase for civil servants last year, white living standards in real terms have fallen every year since 1981.

Foreign investment capital built South Africa, but it has been quietly flowing out of the country since the Soweto uprising of 1976. To fill the investment gap and finance its deficit, Pretoria has looked mainly overseas for loan capital, borrowing to the point at which short-term foreign debt hit $14 billion earlier this year. South Africa, critics warned, was mortgaging its future.

Still, the debt posed no immediate problem as long as international bankers were willing to roll over the loans. But last August they abruptly stopped.

Chase Manhattan, engaged in a broad campaign to reduce its lending exposure overseas, led the way, using Botha's emergency declaration as its rationale in attempting to call in $350 million in outstanding loans. Others lagged, waiting for some signal that the government was aware of the depth of the crisis and prepared to launch dramatic reforms. Instead Botha delivered his Durban speech, a message of cold defiance. The banks suspended new loans, investment capital began a headlong flight and the government was forced to declare a debt freeze and institute strict foreign exchange controls.

No one knows how many billions have fled -- much of the loss will be artfully concealed on corporate balance sheets -- but Reserve Bank Governor Gerhard de Kock has suggested the loss may approximate the size of South Africa's large current account trade surplus, which amounts to at least $2.5 billion this year. The loss, and the accompanying plunge of the South African rand -- it has fallen farther and faster than even the devalued currencies of African economic basket cases such as Zambia and Tanzania -- reflects a stunning drop in both foreign and local business confidence.

"The banks accomplished in just two weeks what the entire international disinvestment movement couldn't do in five years," said Premier Group's Bloom. Economic Pain

Whites have begun to feel the result. The fall of the rand has meant steep price increases in imported goods -- South Africa in essence is exporting capital and importing inflation. A recent business seminar here was told the country is losing 1,000 jobs per week, and the government is even contemplating layoffs inside the formerly sacrosanct white civil service. For the first time in decades there are reports of hunger among white schoolchildren. The apartheid system, designed to guarantee white comfort, now inflicts economic pain on some whites.

The net result has seriously damaged white morale. Official emigration statistics remain low, and many whites are trapped here by the sharp decline of the rand. If they left now, their assets would be worth less than half what they could buy only two years ago. Were the rand to regain even a fraction of its former value, many believe white emigration would soar.

The whites who can afford to leave now are those the economy can least afford to lose. They include recent college graduates who have yet to accumulate assets yet possess needed, marketable skills, and older specialists being recruited by overseas corporations willing to make up the potential loss of moving. In the past 18 months one estimate is that at least eight of the 30 best investment analysts on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange have quit and moved abroad.

Companies were also leaving -- the American Chamber of Commerce here estimated at least 20 American firms pulled out in the first eight months of 1985 -- until the government's Sept. 1 debt freeze made it prohibitive to pull out their assets. Many multinationals instead are said to be using bookkeeping maneuvers such as "transfer pricing," which involves the parent firm's overcharging for goods it sells to its South African subsidiary, to quietly move their money out of the country. De Kock has publicly conceded there is little he can do to prevent such practices.

The financial crisis also has long-term implications for blacks, for it comes at a time when South Africa's economy desperately needs to grow if it is to meet black aspirations without destroying white life styles. Most analysts believe the economy must grow at 5 percent annually just to stay even with the estimated 300,000 new job seekers each year. Black unemployment, according to University of Cape Town researchers, already has passed 25 percent and in depressed areas such as Port Elizabeth it exceeds 50 percent. Yet this year the gross national product is projected to decline nearly 2 percent.

Faced with these stark economic realities, an increasing number of businessmen are calling for a return to strict government controls on imports, an artificially fixed rand price and even tighter restrictions on foreign exchange. Others argue convincingly that such measures would be a first step toward a siege economy. South Africa could come to resemble Africa's largest economic invalid, Nigeria, which complains of huge loan defaults, declining agricultural productivity, a thriving black market in currency and chronic corruption in its massive bureaucracy.

Government supporters point out that while white morale may be down, white will to rule remains, as does the military and police power to enforce that will. "We've had turbulent times but the government is still firmly in control," said Carl Noffke, a former South African diplomat who now heads the Institute for American Studies at Rand Afrikaans University here. "There may even be a drastic decrease in our standard of living and in social services for blacks -- but South Africa can survive."

Other observers do not dispute South Africa's ability to hang on, but contend that the price of exclusive white control will continue to rise. 'Period of Attrition'

"What we're looking at is not an economic collapse," said one analyst, "but a long period of attrition where the economy is eroded steadily and irrecoverably. It's very likely that those who leave, companies and people, will never come back."

But whether whites, swathed in protective layers of privilege and complacency, recognize how much is at risk is an unanswered question. Outside of business and liberal circles there still appears to be little sense of urgency.

"They are prepared to change," said Afrikaner political scientist Andre du Toit, "but only as far and as fast as absolutely necessary. The danger is that it will always be too little and too late."

NEXT: Conflict among blacks.