Whites in South Africa look on neighboring countries and the world in general with a ''deep sense of threat.''
This perception, coupled with a conviction that blacks in South Africa are treated relatively well, has led most whites to favor military solutions to the rising tide of black nationalism confronting South Africa.
These are among the main findings of a new survey of white opinion in South Africa by the South African Institute of International Affairs. Its findings do not bode well for hopes of genuine racial reform in South Africa nor for peaceful coexistence between Pretoria and its black-ruled neighbors in southern Africa.
The survey results point up the gap between how most Western observers view South Africa and the perceptions of the local white population.
''South Africa finds itself so drastically at odds with the international community over its domestic political arrangements,'' writes Deon Geldenhuys, author of the institute survey, that the ''threat-consciousness'' and ''hawkish inclinations'' of South African whites will probably only increase over time.
To many outsiders, the root cause of South Africa's problems is the inequity of the apartheid system, which places the 85 percent of the population that is ''nonwhite'' under the control of the white minority. But most white South Africans apparently view the gravest threat as coming from the outside from a combination of hostile neighbors and communist ''designs.''
On three issues white South African opinion differs decidedly from many outside observers:
* Most South African whites (80 percent) feel the government's constant and dramatic warnings about the ''communist threat'' are not exaggerated. This sentiment extends far beyond the ruling National Party to a strong majority of supporters of the more leftist Progressive Federal Party.
South Africans perceive a communist threat to them even though most outside analysts tend to think Africa, and South Africa in particular, are low priorities on the Soviet list of global concerns. The South African government portrays the communist ''onslaught'' as the key destabilizing element in southern Africa. The Soviets are seen as relentless seekers after South Africa's mineral resources and its strategic location on the tip of Africa, around which much of the West's oil supplies are shipped.
* More than 70 percent of South Africa's whites say Zimbabwe - Africa's newest black-ruled nation - is a particular threat to South Africa.
They believe this even though South Africa's military and economic might dwarfs their northern neighbor and despite Zimbabwe's refusal to allow the African National Congress to establish bases in Zimbabwe for sabotage raids against South Africa.
Rising factionalism in Zimbabwe has helped reinforce the view of South Africa's whites that majority rule does not work in Africa.
* Most whites in South Africa feel a military victory can be won against SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization) forces fighting for control of Namibia (South-West Africa).
Many analysts see Namibia as ultimately a ''no win'' situation for South Africa. The whites' view that the border war can be won with guns seems even more hawkish than the stance of the Nationalist government, which claims to be seeking a peaceful, negotiated settlement.
The survey found that most whites were prepared for a terrorist war in South Africa. Most whites favored military strikes into neighboring countries where terrorist groups have bases.
Over 70 percent of whites did not think blacks in South Africa had good reason to take up arms against the government, according to the survey. Still, most whites did not feel South Africa could depend on blacks in a war against South Africa.