SEBOKENG, South Africa -- Thirty-six varnished wood coffins sat in the middle of a big soccer field, surrounded by wailing women, stony-faced men and youths wearing military-style uniforms trimmed with yellow, black and green braid.
African National Congress flags, also yellow, black and green, fluttered in the wind, marking the funeral as an ANC political event.
Outside the stadium sat a half-dozen police tanks and vanseach filled with white men in blue uniforms with stern expressions. A single blue and yellow police helicopter circled the stadium three times, agitating mourners in the crowd who alternately shook their fists, waved at the chopper and beckoned it to come down.
"Give them the contempt they deserve. Ignore them," shouteArchbishop Desmond Tutu, who addressed the 15,000 mourners a funeral service last Sunday for victims of a massacre in this troubled black township.
The crowd heeded his advice, and the helicopter flew off into the distance until its loud clattering could no longer be heard.
The fact that ANC supporters could ignore the police at such aevent demonstrates a fundamental change from the old South Africa whose harsh racist policies earned it pariah status around the world. A mass funeral attended by black activists generally ended in ugly clashes with police, who fired tear gas and birdshot into the crowd. People would be carted off to jail for carrying the ANC flag.
Most ANC leaders were in jail, in exile or under some form of garule until President Frederik W. de Klerk began shaking things up with a series of political reforms. For South Africa, which long resisted the idea of abandoning white privilege and minority rule, it has been a time of momentouschange.
The most significant changes began Feb. 2, 1990, when Mr. dKlerk announced what one political scientist calls the "deregulation of black politics."
Mr. de Klerk legalized the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Pan-Africanist Congress and other anti-apartheid groups that had been banned for decades. He also lifted restrictions that served to muzzle or limit the political activities of legal groups, such as the broad-based United Democratic Front.
"Now black or multiracial political organizations in this countrcan speak as freely as they can in a Western European country," said John Kane Berman, director of the South African Institute on Race Relations.
Those groups speak mainly about ending apartheid, removinMr. de Klerk's National Party from power and electing a "non-racial" government.
The South African president agrees that apartheid must go, and he insists that the country is on an irreversible course toward ending it and building a democratic society.
Last year, his government repealed the 37-year-old lasegregating public accommodations and promised that other apartheid laws would go, too.
He kept his promise Friday by formally proposing to repeal two other racist laws this year: the Group Areas Act, which segregates residential areas, and the Land Acts, which reserve 87 percent of the country's land for its white minority.
The president also said he would repeal the Population Registration Act, but aides said his government would replace it with measures that would keep South Africa's racial classification system in place until a new constitution is written.
Mr. de Klerk also has released dozens of political prisoners anallowed hundreds of exiles to return to South Africa, many to take part in negotiations aimed at drafting a new constitution giving blacks equal rights with whites.
"There can be no doubt that there has been a change," said Walter Sisulu, a veteran ANC leader who was released from prison in October1989, the month after Mr. de Klerk became president.
"The very negotiations which we are engaged in signify a change. It is the beginning, of course, of a long process to put right what has been destroyed over centuries," Mr. Sisulu said.
The divisions between black and white present an obstacle tbuilding the new South Africa, but so do the divisions between rival black groups that became evident after anti-apartheid organizations began competing openly for black support and for position at the negotiating table with the white government.
Optimism about a peaceful and prosperous new South Africa has been dampened substantially by an ugly outbreak of violence in black townships such as Sebokeng.
There are deep suspicions that police or right-wing elements might be fanning the flames of black township violence, hiring hit men and distributing weapons. But most of the township wars have involved clashes between blackrivals rather than between black activists and white police.
In Sebokeng, 42 people were slaughtered Jan. 12 whilattending a funeral vigil for a slain ANC activist in what was reported to be an attack by a rival black grouping.
In other townships, an estimated 3,000 blacks were killed last year in clashes that mainly pitted supporters of the ANC against its most prominent rival, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party. Leaders of the two groups, Mr. Mandela and Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, finally issued a joint call for peace among their followers.
"The nature of violence has changed completely. It's more pervasive, it's more threatening. No one can count himself or herself safe," said Khehla Shubane, a researcher at the Center for Policy Studies, a political think tank at the University of the Witwatersrand.
"I think it's worse now because apartheid violence, particularlthe kind of obvious, open violence, was more often than not focused on those who dared to do something against apartheid," said Mr. Shubane, who lives in the township of Soweto.
"When you made a decision to act against apartheid, you had ttake it into the bargain that that would happen to you. People knew how to avoid it. . . . But now there's nothing you can do to stay away from violence."
Life has become more dangerous for people who live in strife-torn townships, he said, while poverty and unemployment remain pressing concerns for the majority of blacks.
"I don't think one can say that life for black people as a whole has changed. But for some black people there have been changes.
For activists, for example, life has changed to the extent that going to jail, going to detention is no longer the reality it was before Feb. 2 .
"People can sit back and plan ahead four or five years down the road, something that was just not possible three or four years ago," he said.
The past year also has seen a loosening of attitudes amonblacks and whites, and an acceptance that South Africa will be a different place than the white-dominated world that sat for so long at Africa's tip.
"I think the biggest political change has actually been in thminds of the people. The black person's state of mind about his future is completely different than it was a year ago. He has a completely different outlook in regard to his citizenship," said Harry Schwarz, a liberal member of Parliament who was recently named as South Africa's new ambassador to Washington.
"Among whites, the overwhelming majority have come to accepthat there's going to be a new South Africa.
"Some may not have greeted this with enthusiasm, but I think they've reconciled themselves," he said.