The man's hands were gripped tightly together and his head lowered as he described his wife's arrest three weeks ago and his two brief meetings with her in jail.

For a while, he said, she had been held with other political detainees at the central prison, where she had access to books, daily exercise and the company of others being held under South Africa's stringent state of emergency.

Then, last week, she had been transferred to a security police headquarters for interrogation and held in solitary confinement. The lights burned 24 hours a day in her cell, meals were bleak and irregular, the toilet filthy, he said, while exercise was not allowed and the only reading matter was the Bible.

"This is going to break her absolutely," the man said, recalling her frightened look during his last visit. "She feels very scared."

Her situation, as described by her husband, who asked that their names not be used, was just one nameless case among thousands involving detainees since the government imposed a state of emergency one month ago and began rounding up opponents.

Since then, human rights advocates estimate that between 3,800 and 8,000 people have been detained without charge or access to lawyers. They can be held indefinitely until the end of the emergency, which officials hint could go on for months.

In one sense, the man whose wife is at security police headquarters is lucky. He at least knows where his wife is. Despite official assurances to the contrary, rights advocates say that in a large majority of cases, family members have not been informed of the detentions.

The government contends the detentions are necessary to bring to an end two years of bloodshed that has claimed more than 2,000 lives and plunged this white-ruled country into a seemingly permanent political crisis.

Citing "state security," Pretoria has refused to release the names or numbers of those detained and has threatened journalists with prosecution or deportation if they publish detainees' names, any "unauthorized" information about police activities or anything else deemed "subversive." This article was written under those restrictions.

Nonetheless, as the emergency enters its second month, some information is beginning to trickle from the prisons. Civil rights lawyers, using the limited powers of South Africa's judiciary, have begun to hammer some small chinks in the monolithic state security apparatus.

Three detainees were released this week after lawsuits were brought on their behalf by relatives. In two cases, judges ruled that even using their sweeping emergency powers, police must have reasonable grounds to make arrests.

A legal challenge by a black trade union to the entire emergency, based on the argument that the government was required to submit the declaration for parliamentary approval after its first 14 days, is to be heard in a Natal court Monday.

Other courts in Natal have granted orders restraining police from assaulting three teen-aged detainees. In each case, relatives visiting the prisoners said they complained of being beaten by police. The government has yet to file responses to these allegations.

"We have received allegations of torture and assault in a number of police stations," said Peter Harris, a lawyer with Cheadle, Haysom and Thompson, a law firm here that represents more than 400 detainees. Last year it brought a lawsuit against police in Port Elizabeth in which prison doctor Wendy Orr said she had treated large numbers of detainees for injuries consistent with torture and other abuse.

Dr. Orr was quickly removed from her prison job and the lawsuit was dismissed a few weeks ago because last year's emergency decree, under which it was brought, had expired in March. Restrictions on visits and information are so tight this time, said Harris, that obtaining legally admissible evidence of police abuse is all but impossible.

"We're mostly getting messages shouted from the prison windows or things said to relatives on visits," he said. "Just about all we can do is request assurances from Pretoria that a district surgeon prison doctor will be immediately dispatched to visit the cell and examine the detainee."

Harris gets most of his clients from the Detainees' Parents Support Committee, one of the groups that has compiled lists of the missing. Because the group's offices have been raided several times since the emergency began, its list is kept in a private location and journalists are asked to reveal only its numbers.

As of last week, the list had 2,111 names, including 488 community activists, 261 teachers and students, 209 trade unionists, 67 clergy and church workers and 12 journalists. A labor monitoring group connected with the University of Witwatersrand has reported that 245 union officials remain in detention and that 2,324 rank-and-file members have been held at various times since the emergency began.

Neil Ross, director of a missing persons bureau set up by the opposition Progressive Federal Party, said his group has a list of 3,867 people who have "disappeared."

A detainees' committee member, who asked not to be identified, said previous experience suggested that for every one of the 2,111 names the committee has compiled there may be two others being held who have not been reported. Western diplomats say they have received estimates as high as 8,000.

Police say they are trying to contact the next of kin of those picked up. But in only 77 of the committee's most recent list of 498 new detentions cases had relatives been informed.

"These families go out of their heads with worry," said Harris, whose firm has sent off 250 telexed requests for information on people it believes detained, yet has received only about 100 confirmations from police. "For the rest, we don't know where they are."

The government said 10 days ago that it would begin charging 780 of the people being held, a move that would entitle them to legal counsel and, eventually, a day in court. But so far, said Harris, his firm knew of only three people who had been charged.

Those inside are all but sealed off. Prison regulations published the same day as the emergency stipulate that visits can take place only with the concurrence of both police and prison officials. In practice, that has meant a single visit once every two weeks for one relative in the cases where families have found out where their relatives are being held.

Relatives are allowed to provide money and clothes and in some cases to take dirty clothes home to be washed. That gives them a chance to check for bloodstains, said a detainees' committee member.

The regulations list 20 different "disciplinary contraventions," including singing, whistling or making an "unnecessary noise," lodging "false, frivolous or malicious complaints" and causing "discontent, agitation or insubordination" among fellow detainees. Such violations can result in a cutback in food rations for up to 30 days, solitary confinement for the same period or even corporal punishment -- "not exceeding six strokes."

Despite the enforced silence, detainees at Modderbee, a large fortress-like prison east of Johannesburg, managed to smuggle out a letter to journalists last week. It said 32 of them are on a hunger strike to protest the emergency and conditions at the institution, which it called "appalling and extremely disgusting."

The letter demanded regular visits, exercise periods, medical attention and better food. A prison official said such strikes "are a calculated effort to obtain maximum publicity for propaganda value."

Even some who are released cannot escape the imposed silence of the emergency. When Wolfram Kistner, 63, deputy general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, was freed last weekend, he was served a writ signed by the minister of law and order that banned him from visiting educational institutions, giving interviews to journalists or attending any meeting at which the government "is attacked, criticized or discussed."

Sometimes the state relents. Rebeccah Beea, wife of a community leader in the black township of Alexandra who himself "disappeared" 10 days ago, was picked up early yesterday morning by three men who identified themselves as policemen. They also took her two children, Portia, 8, and Ronald, 4.

Dorothy Beea, the grandmother, spent a morning trying to find her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. "They've taken my son, so what more can they want?" she asked. "How can they take the children?"

She walked over a mile to the nearest police station and called the detainees' committee. Helen Suzman, an opposition member of Parliament, contacted the police, while a reporter telexed the state Bureau for Information asking for confirmation of the arrest.

At mid-afternoon a police car pulled up and Rebeccah Beea and the two children were released. The bureau, which almost never comments on individual detentions, sent a reply to Dorothy Beea's questions. Her daughter-in-law had been "detained for questioning," it said. "She has since been released. Her children accompanied her while she was detained for questioning."