The first time he was detained in prison, for three months, he sometimes wondered what he did to get arrested. But the second time, he told himself, it was simply fate.

"When it happens for a second time, I wouldn't say it's better," Pule Nape says, "but in South Africa, whether you do something or not, it's inevitable you're going to be arrested. It's like getting shot. Whether you've been involved in a demonstration or not, you're going to get shot."

Nape -- who has not been shot -- says all this in careful, clipped English; an unemployed, high-school-educated black South African, he has the manners and articulateness of a graduate student. "I'm a reader by nature," he says. He is small and thin with prominent ears and big glasses and a thick, nubby knit tie under a V-neck pullover sweater. He is 22 years old.

"Don't say 22 years old," he says with a smile. "Say 22 years oppressed."

Nape and two other young men were brought here by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to take part in a symposium on South African children in detention. Although not a congressional hearing, the symposium -- which began yesterday and concludes today at the Rayburn House Office Building -- does have Senate and House cosponsors, and the members of those two bodies are a major part of the audience the Lawyers' Committee hopes to reach. The idea is that when the issue of detention and torture of South African children and youths comes up, "nobody on the Hill should be able to say they didn't hear about it," explains Gay McDougall, an attorney and the director of the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers' Committee.

There will be 14 South Africans (including the young people) testifying about this issue, including a white South African antiapartheid activist who had two of her sons detained by police over a period of months. "Getting these people here is a whole other story," says McDougall ruefully. "Black people rarely have passports." As for trying to contact some of the young South Africans on the phone, she says, "most of them are underground."

The Lawyers' Committee contends -- based on information culled from reports by private South African human rights monitoring groups, including the Detainees Parents Support Committee -- that 10,000 of the 25,000 people detained under the State of Emergency in South Africa in the last year have been children under the age of 18. The group also says that of the estimated 5,000 people now held, 1,000 are children. While detained, says McDougall, "virtually none of them are ever charged," and they are often assaulted. According to the Lawyers' Committee, this includes tear-gassing, beatings, striking of male genitals, and food and sleep deprivation. "Beatings are quite frequent," McDougall says.

Of the young men who have come to Washington, Nape was held for three months the first time, when he was 20, and 10 months the second time (the first three of those in solitary confinement). He cites the mental torture and subsequent depression he went through as his worst experiences. Patrick Makhoba, 17, was held for 42 days last summer -- the first 39 in solitary confinement -- and was beaten. The third visiting youth, 18-year-old William Tshabalala, was detained on June 16, 1986, for less than a day. "I gave them a false address and a false name and they released me after six hours," says Tshabalala, who is scheduled to talk about the dangers of life in the townships this afternoon.

Both Nape and Makhoba have been involved in protest politics -- Nape in a youth organization, Makhoba in school politics, and their rhetoric is sophisticated. Both say they have not been involved in violent activities such as stoning or burning. But Makhoba offers an impassioned and painstaking defense of youths who have taken to violence, citing the repressiveness they endure in an apartheid system and the frustration they feel at being able to do little about it. "What is happening in our country is a product of the system," he says.

"All these fellows are involved in legal political opposition," says Audrey Coleman, a white South African who helped found Detainees Parents Support Committee in 1981 when one of her sons was detained for five months. "Our government promotes the idea that people who are detained are involved in stoning, burning. We're all involved in legal activity."

When a state of emergency is declared in South Africa -- one exists now -- anyone thought to be a direct threat to the South African state may be held.

The South African government denies virtually all of the allegations about children's detention made by the Lawyers' Committee. "It's absolutely ridiculous," says South African Embassy First Secretary Eli Bitzer. "The latest figures are that 11 children under the age of 16 are {being detained} in South Africa, and they've been charged with very serious crimes -- like necklacing {a gruesome form of political retribution in which the victim burns to death with a gasoline-filled tire around his neck}. These are unsubstantiated allegations that are made wildly and without motive."

According to a South African government Department of Foreign Affairs news bulletin dated June 3, the figure of 11 children held is down from 280 children who had been in detention as of Feb. 12.

The bulletin quotes South African Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok decrying allegations of assault against detained children as "false and malicious."

Vlok is quoted in the bulletin saying: "After studying the facts put at my disposal I came to the conclusion that the blame for these detentions lies with the revolutionary radicals who cold-bloodedly select these children and force them to commit cruel and revolting acts against society."

On the afternoon of June 11 last year -- the day before a new state of emergency was declared -- Patrick Makhoba says he was with six friends on the grounds of his high school in Soweto when the police just appeared. "We had no way of running," he remembers. "They were everywhere. The school is huge. It was surrounded. I couldn't believe so many people would come for seven little boys. I was 16."

He is small and young-looking with a sprinkling of freckles over his nose. But he was hardly an innocent to the ways of life in South African townships. When the police swooped down on his school, he was already carrying his toothbrush. He no longer slept at home every night, preferring to evade security forces by sleeping at different houses on different nights.

He says he was beaten at the schoolyard and later, at the police station in Soweto, was interrogated and beaten again. At the station he refused to be fingerprinted and refused to sign a statement essentially acknowledging his detainment.

"We were told not to lean against anything and we were so tired. We were just lined up and they would come in and look at us and then just kick one of us ... They've got batons. They like kicking people -- everywhere."

Two days after he was picked up, someone came to his cell and told him he was free to go, handing him a release paper to sign. "I was very happy, I was leaving the cell and someone else said, 'Where are you going?' " Then he was escorted back to his cell. "I think that was mental torture, because I was so happy about going home."

He was kept in solitary confinement for 39 days.

"I couldn't even see the sun," Makhoba says. But there was a window, so he had light and could tell the passing of the days.

There were interrogations as well -- questions about student organizations, about who was responsible for student demonstrations. "Some of the things were pretty obvious. They would ask about class boycotts. Never at any time did I give specific names."

Sometimes in the interrogation room, "they would handcuff me, push me against a wall and push a table against me so I couldn't move, then someone would jump on the table and help himself to me -- just beat me, beat me in the face. Every time they asked me a question, they would beat me."

After 42 days in jail, "they just came in and said, 'Pack your bags and go.' I did it but I didn't show any happiness. I thought, 'I'm not going to believe it.' And I didn't believe it until I got to my mother's house."

He was released July 24, 1986. South African activists provided him with access to a psychiatrist whom he saw for two months. Makhoba was troubled by sleeplessness, nightmares, depression.

"The first question that comes to your mind," he says, putting his fingers to his temples, "is 'Why did I protest?' It's because of concrete reasons -- the conditions, people being shot, small children tear-gassed ... If it means detention, that's it. If it means getting shot, that's it. I find it worse to sit around watching ... to do like an ostrich, put your head in the sand."

He plans to stay mostly in hiding when he returns to South Africa.

Pule Nape says his first direct encounter with the police was at 4 in the morning as he slept at a friend's house in August 1985. "They knocked on the door and said they were police arresting us {under} the state of emergency."

He had been involved in student protests. He was a member of the Alexandra Youth Congress in his home town of Alexandra, which is near Johannesburg. He was taken by police van to a local police station -- his friend managed to run out of the house and elude the police -- then transferred to the Johannesburg Prison. He spent three months in a communal cell: "It accommodates 36."

He remembers two 9-year-olds. One was known, ironically, as Lucky. "When I saw those kids cry in the cell, it was the worst thing. A 9-year-old has to cry. He wants his mother. You want to help, but you're in no position to help. You need to be comforted."

There were three meals a day. He appears to remember them all. There was porridge and skimmed milk for breakfast. Some dinners were meat and corn, others were fish minced with ground fish bones. Sometimes there were boiled eggs and soup.

One of the allegations about these detentions without charge is that prisoners have no rights to visits from family and lawyers -- something the South African government denies -- and families are rarely notified. Nape's mother (his father is dead) did find out where her son was from his cellmates' visitors and tried to visit him, but according to Nape her efforts to secure visiting privileges were "frustrated."

Nape was released three months after he was detained. "They just came with forms and read our names," he says.

The next year, on June 11, 1986, after a friend had been shot and killed, he went to the friend's home to try to find out what had happened. He was arrested standing outside the house. The second time, he says, "they would give you threats: 'This state of emergency is going to last for years; you'll rot in this prison.' "

He was visited by a lawyer during his incarceration, but the lawyer was unable to get him released.

"You know you read about these things in newspapers," he says. "When it happens to you, it becomes worse."

Nape spent a total of three months in solitary confinement at Morningside Prison outside of Johannesburg, followed by seven months in a communal cell in Johannesburg Prison. Interrogations, he says, took place at any hour of the day or night. "I suffered from mental stress," Nape says. "I had severe headaches and loss of appetite. I'm a thin person but I went from bad to worse."

He was hospitalized for a month in Johannesburg under prison guard. "When I was in the hospital my mother passed away," he says. "I was not given permission to go and see her buried." But after several weeks in the hospital, he was released completely from police custody and allowed to go home.

Now, two months out of prison, he says, "I'm still trying to catch up on the outside world. Presently I'm suffering from insomnia."

He says he would like to work. "I'm indiscriminate -- working farms or even working in mines," he says. He believes he could be detained again at any moment. But he plans to return.

"It's going to be impossible for me to leave South Africa," he says. "I'm going to stay in the country of my birth and fight for it."