THE images we have of South Africa -- of militant, rock-throwing teen-agers battling heavily armed police -- provide only a small part of the picture of the power struggle now in full swing there. Certainly there is violence -- enough to characterize the crisis as a low-level civil war. But there is also a welter of less visible organizing and alternative institution-building that promises to have a profound effect on the future of South Africa.
In fact, it is the explosion of grass-roots democracy within the black ``townships,'' the independent trade unions, and a host of multiracial groups opposed to the sophisticated system of white supremacy that is the primary target of a steadily escalating state-sponsored campaign of repression and violence.
On a three-week tour of the strife-torn country, I found scores of black and white anti-apartheid activists working day and night under almost constant threat of attack to mobilize and sustain a broad-based constituency for peaceful social change.
Most are members of the United Democratic Front (UDF) -- best known through its high-profile patrons, Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak, leader of the Black Dutch Reformed Church, but composed of dozens of community-based groups throughout South Africa -- and of the recently formed Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), which now has more than a half million members.
UDF activists have come under brutal attack by the armed forces and police and by a growing number of vigilante groups widely believed to be supported, at least tacitly, by South African authorities.
At issue is not simply the pace of change, which all sides appear to accept as inevitable, but the shape and structure of post-apartheid South Africa and the degree to which violence will define the outcome.
Apartheid is a means to control the flow and use of cheap labor that sustains for whites one of the highest standards of living in the world. It dismembers families, breaks up whole communities, and reduces 75 percent of the population to chattel, whose every movement is manipulated by draconian laws and sheer police power.
This is why anti-apartheid activists insist that the system cannot be reformed: It must be scrapped. They are demanding not only the integration of buses and beaches, but also a restructuring of the economy and a fundamental democratization of the entire society.
Yet the white minority regime, with considerable US support, continues to resist substantive change with a complex mix of superficial reforms and intensified repression. Added to this is a sudden influx of money from Washington and from US corporations aimed at creating an alternative black leadership.
The main target of US support appears to be Gatsha Buthelezi, the Zulu chief and the leader of the Inkatha movement. Chief Buthelezi is often compared to Rhodesia's Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the black conservative who was trounced in independent Zimbabwe's first national elections. He is also described as the likely candidate for ``contra''-style support from Washington in the event of a radical change in South Africa.
Inkatha thugs received international publicity recently when they attacked an educational conference of UDF groups in Durban. Such incidents are an almost daily occurrence throughout the state of Natal, where Buthelezi maintains his power base by parceling out jobs, services, and other favors in the poverty-stricken KwaZulu homeland, according to UDF leaders there.
Yet neither these attacks nor the routine arrest and detention of UDF leaders is slowing down the momentum of protest activity. This is in large part because of the participatory nature of the growing anti-apartheid movement, which is based upon decentralized, block-by-block organizing in the black townships, shop-floor organizing in the trade unions, and collective leadership in student groups, women's associations, and other multiracial anti-apartheid organizations. When leaders disappear, there are always others to take their place.
Under these circumstances, traditional charity and quiet diplomacy are entirely inappropriate. Not only do they fail to confront the basic cause of human suffering, they also tend to legitimize the present regime and to encourage those, like Buthelezi, whose demagoguery and violent tactics can ony worsen the situation.
Church leaders, community activists, and trade unionists in South Africa say that only increased pressure from within and without will foster substantial and lasting change. This includes stepped-up pressure on corporations and banks to disinvest and on the Reagan administration to impose tough economic sanctions.
What is also needed is direct support for the main institutional groupings operating in South Africa -- the UDF and Cosatu -- which represent clear commitments to multiracial democracy and upon which the future of this resource-rich land depends.
Dan Connell is executive dirctor of Grassroots International, an independent social-change agency based in Cambridge, Mass.