WASHINGTON. — That was an impressive mandate to move away from apartheid that white South Africans voted last week, but it sure didn't justify the hyperbole that we've seen in the American press.
Was it ''a political and social earthquake'' as the New York Times called it? Hardly. A reason for universities and local governments to rush to reinvest in South Africa, as the Times suggests? A very premature reaction.
Did the ''lost white tribe'' of South Africa vote ''to rejoin the human race,'' as the Times says? No, two-thirds of that white tribe voted to share an undeclared measure of political power at some undetermined time rather than see President F. W. de Klerk resign and the country plunge into a race war with 3 million whites fighting 30 million black people.
Have white South Africans ''closed the books on apartheid,'' as Mr. de Klerk claimed? Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress, was trying to mute the orgies of glee Wednesday by reminding the world that neither he nor any other black South African can yet vote, and no one can now say when any black will cast a ballot for anything.
Apartheid is ''very much alive,'' Mr. Mandela said.
He could see this in the 1992-93 South African budget, released after Tuesday's vote, in which money for education and social services is to be lavished upon whites, with piddling amounts going to blacks. ANC members were in the streets protesting against ''this apartheid budget.''
I hate to throw a wet blanket over the editorial glee in the United States, but I am restrained by my memories of things I wrote in 1954 about the death of Jim Crow in this country. I thought the Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education) was the end of segregated schools. Now, almost 38 years later, I see how white violence, white flight, renunciation of busing and gerrymandering of school districts have left de facto segregation entrenched in schools, North and South.
Some of my skepticism about the books being closed on apartheid is my knowledge, from watching my own country, that a change in political leadership can send a society careening backward toward the darknesses of bigotry and injustice. For more than a decade in which Presidents Reagan and Bush have played ''the race card,'' there has been no meaningful progress toward racial equality of opportunity in America.
That third of the ''white tribe'' that voted ''no'' Tuesday will be gunning for Mr. de Klerk and others who advocate giving any measure of political and economic power to the black majority. Mr. de Klerk's successor might be of a mind to turn some pages back in the book the current president thinks is closed.
I was particularly struck by a Herblock cartoon showing a black and a white South African, their shackles broken, saying together, ''Free at last! Free at last!'' It reminded me of the reaction of Thurgood Marshall to Martin Luther King's dramatic cry, ''Thank God, we're free at last.''
''We're nowhere near free,'' said Marshall, who spoke in realities instead of dreams.
Nobody, black, white, colored or Asian, is anywhere near free in South Africa. Last week's vote allows me to hope, but not to celebrate.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.