While the printing presses clatter and black workers go about the job of collating and folding, two representatives of the Republic of South Africa, wearing blue jeans and ski jackets, silently read through the 28 tabloid-size pages of The Weekly Mail newspaper.

They are looking for articles, photographs and cartoons that they consider "subversive" or otherwise in violation of South Africa's sweeping restrictions on news and commentary during the nationwide state of emergency.

What they see, instead, is a once outspokenly liberal newspaper in which anything even remotely controversial either has been removed, leaving empty white space, or obliterated with a thick black line. Whole paragraphs and, in one case, an entire story have disappeared. So have a photograph and a cartoon.

A few feet away, the paper's lawyer and a dozen staff members, sponsors and hangers-on keep watch, waiting for the two men to reach their verdict. It is an anxious vigil, made worse by the fact that a week earlier the Mail was one of two newspapers taken off the streets by police on the second day of the emergency.

The scene late Thursday night at a suburban printing plant was the culmination of a long day of frustration, anger and disappointment as the Mail's youthful editors and writers struggled to produce a newspaper that could convey the news and lambaste the government without falling afoul of the stringent new regulations. The Foreign Correspondents Association here and many lawyers have branded the rules the tightest press restrictions in the world.

Their task was not made easier by the fact that the state, while reserving the right to seize and ban any publication, has refused actually to censor. It prefers to leave that task to newspaper lawyers.

But the regulations are so broad, and recourse to the courts so restricted, that the minister of law and order and his designated representatives -- meaning any police officer of the rank of lieutenant colonel or above -- can seize anything that "in his opinion" might violate the rules or provoke others to do so.

This article was written under the same regulations, which do not allow reporters to publish subversive material, divulge the names of any of the estimated 3,000 persons detained since last week or report "unauthorized" information about the conduct of any of South Africa's security forces. That is why the two government representatives who came to the printing plant are not identified further.

Some critics find that the Mail has a bit of a monotone, but most applaud its consistent willingness to jab its collective thumb in the government's all-seeing eye. It was started last June by editors and writers thrown out of work when the Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg's liberal morning newspaper, and the companion Sunday Express went out of business.

It is owned by its mostly young, mostly white staff of 13, plus supporting sponsors, and it is almost always broke. Circulation has doubled in the past year from 7,500 to an average of 15,000, and two weeks ago it hit nearly 19,000 for the first time.

This was a week of tough decisions for many publications. Newsweek did not appear on newsstands here after its distributors, fearing they could be held legally responsible, decided that its tough cover story on South Africa violated the emergency rules. Time magazine did appear, but with three pages blanked out and a notice printed on one of them apologizing to its readers.

The Sowetan newspaper left blank space for several days in the places where its lawyers had yanked stories or photos, but yesterday it informed readers that the lawyers had warned that even blank spaces could be construed as "provocative" and, therefore, a violation.

About the only local newspapers that continued to hit hard were the large, established, English-language dailies, which -- by virtue of their size and their membership in the country's corporate establishment -- appear to enjoy a certain limited immunity in commenting on administration actions. They are circumspect on their news pages, but blast the government and its opaque spokesmen in editorials and opinion columns.

For a small weekly like the Mail -- which lacks the prestige and resources of a big daily, and which has a history of irking the government -- the risk is greater. Three free-lance writers associated with the Mail have been detained since the emergency began.

South Africa's Afrikaans-language press generally has supported the emergency.

For the Mail, this week was doubly tough because, following last week's seizure, the editors and lawyers were convinced that the government was looking for an excuse to close them down and would be far harder on them than on the major dailies. Coeditors Anton Harber, 27, and Irwin Manoim, 31, also had to cope with nervous distributors, who at first insisted upon clearing the publication with their own lawyers.

Harber and Manoim convinced the distributors and the printer to let them clear the issue through the Mail's lawyers. They also decided to have their writers do their normal reporting, then examine every word with their lawyers to see what could stay and what had to go.

Thursday is deadline day for the Mail, which hits the streets early Friday morning, and for a while its small, crowded offices are the usual newspaper scene of random clutter and controlled panic. Then at 3 p.m. the lawyers arrive.

There are two of them, David Hoffe and Andrew Pearce, and their red ties and gray flannel suits contrast sharply with the blue jeans and shirttails of the staff. The lawyers take up positions in Harber and Manoim's office and, armed with yellow grease pencils, begin the grim work of censorship on the Mail's page proofs.

Words like "injustice," "disinvestment," "emergency" and "apartheid" are stricken almost wherever they appear. A comment by a civil rights activist that a township in the western Cape resembles "a prison" for its inhabitants is struck out. Every name is blacked out on a partial list of detainees provided by a local rights group and published on a two-page spread.

A photograph of flowers that a group of clerics had tried unsuccessfully to deliver to Soweto this week is also removed, even though it has appeared in the large dailies a few days earlier. Also stricken is a cartoon of two white men in blindfolds sniffing the air, one asking, "What's cooking?" and the other replying, "I don't know, but it smells revolting."

Then there is a piece called "The day that fell off the calendar," an account by reporter Sefako Nyoka of what it was like to be in Soweto during the general strike last Monday, June 16, the 10th anniversary of the Soweto uprising.

Nyoka, an ex-Rand Daily Mail reporter, says his piece was "not really accurate. I had to put it in words that wouldn't violate the rules and it was really frustrating."

But the lawyers are not satisfied. The press restrictions bar all journalists from black townships. By having been in Soweto, Nyoka has broken the rules, even though his piece is circumspect. The entire story ends up on the floor, alongside the cartoon and the photograph.

"The problem is, I've got to be able to read the mind of any police colonel who comes to have a look," says lawyer Hoffe. "If it looks provocative to him, in his honest opinion, then it's finished." After jousting with the lawyers, editor Harber takes a metal ruler and a thick black pen and begins to draw lines through the offending copy. "This is the worst job of all," he says. "Just call me Kafka."

The last piece to go is the Mail's front page, an editorial opposing the emergency under the headline, "Don't Turn Out the Light." The headline criticizes the emergency, the lawyers say, and the police can construe criticism as a form of subversion under the sweeping legal definition contained in the rules.

So the headline goes. In its place Harber and Manoim propose a new headline that reads, "Our lawyers tell us we can say almost nothing critical about the Emergency. But we'll try . . . " Several words in the rest of the commentary are blacked out, including these:

"If it is subversive to speak out against --------- the blacked-out word is 'injustice' , we plead guilty.

"If it is subversive to express concern about --- ------ 'the future' , we plead guilty."

"It's still provocative and it still could get you in trouble," says Hoffe, shaking his head, "but let's try it."

Five hours after they arrived, the lawyers are finished. They compose a letter to distributors and the printer stating their opinion that the Mail is not in violation of the emergency. Hoffe, the senior man, heads for home, where he will sit by the phone until early morning. Pearce accompanies the staff to the printing plant.

Despite their okay, uncertainty gnaws. Will the police come before the presses start to roll, or will they wait until all the copies are printed and bundled in order to cause maximum inconvenience and expense? Will they come here at all, or lie in wait for the delivery truck as it leaves the plant? Will they find the black lines and white space and the slightly cheeky tone provocative?

Perhaps worst of all, will they decide, as is in their discretion, to arrest the staff and hold them for 14 days without charge or hearing?

An hour passes at the plant and fears begin to ease as the presses start to rattle and copies appear. People are eating when two men arrive, identify themselves and ask to see the paper.

The smiles fade, along with conversation, and the staff holds its breath while the men pore through each page of two copies.

After perhaps 30 minutes, one of the men looks up and asks Harber if he can take a copy with him. Harber smiles and says certainly. When the man reaches for his wallet, Harber says the copy is free, but the man insists on paying.

"How does it look to you?" Harber asks as the two men leave.

"It looks all right," the man replies tersely.

"Our lawyers went over every word," Harber adds.

"Yes, I can see that," the man says.

The next morning, the Mail's street posters read, "We're Back on the Streets." They might have added, "At Least for Now."