KROONSTAD, SOUTH AFRICA -- When Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog turned 38 last month, she gave the first multiracial party ever held in this Orange Free State farming town. It was, as she puts it, "quite an event."
The spacious two-story home Krog shares with her architect husband, John Samuel, and four children held 50 guests: 30 whites, for whom this was their first social contact with blacks, and 20 people from the segregated "colored," or mixed-race, township of Brent Park, who had never socialized with whites.
By Krog's account in an interview later, the atmosphere was stiff and uncomfortable. Until the action began.
An hour after the guests arrived, there was a knock on the door. Krog opened it to find a short, powerfully built white man in a T-shirt. He had tattooed arms and stood with his hands behind his back. He also flexed his biceps and jerked his head back and forth in a menacing way.
"I froze," said Krog. "I looked at his hands behind his back and I felt sure he had a gun. I thought he was going to shoot me."
Instead the man demanded a donation to the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, the white extremist organization that uses Nazi-style salutes and insignia and is South Africa's equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan. When Krog refused, the man turned and called, "She won't!" to figures sitting in a car.
They left without harming her but an hour later the police burst in, saying they had received complaints from neighbors about noise. "The white guests were outraged," said Krog. "They knew the suggestion was nonsense because the party was very quiet, and in any case the neighbors were away. They jumped up and told the police to get out -- and the coloreds were very impressed at seeing them do that.
"From that moment everything clicked, and it turned out to be the best party anyone can remember in Kroonstad," Krog added.
The story is more than just a vignette of life in a South African country town. Krog's experiences are a kind of barometer of racial tensions in this changing society, the shifting responses to her attempts to build what she calls a "oneness" in her hometown reflecting the confusions and changing attitudes as South Africa enters a transitional phase from white minority to black majority rule.
She has always been something of a nonconformist. The scion of a respected Afrikaner family -- her mother, Dot Serfontein, is a popular Afrikaans novelist and her father, Willem Krog, a successful farmer -- Krog was brought up in an atmosphere of loyalty to her volk and to the ruling National Party.
Yet when she was asked by a teacher at the age of 14 to write a poem on the assassination of Hendrik F. Verwoerd, the prime minister of the 1960s who was the chief architect of apartheid, she declined. "The project just didn't move me," she recalled.
When she was 17 and in her final year at high school she wrote a poem of a different sort. Called "My Beautiful Land," it began: "Look, I'm building for myself a country of a different kind where skin colour counts for nothing, only one's mind... ."
Unbeknown to her, African National Congress exiles spotted the poem and translated it into English. When veteran ANC leader Ahmed Kathrada was released from Robben Island prison in October last year after 26 years, he read the poem at a huge welcoming rally in Johannesburg, saying it had given him hope during his long incarceration.
Today Krog is ranked as one of the foremost Afrikaans poets of her time. She is the current holder of the Hertzog Prize, the Afrikaans language's premier literary award. But like several other Afrikaans literary figures, she is seriously at odds with her community.
She has traveled a difficult road. Although Krog rejected apartheid politically and culturally, for a long time she did not know how to relate those sentiments to her work.
"It is one thing to be against apartheid and another to live that out," she says. "There was this fear in the back of my mind that politics kills writing, and that because one is white one cannot write about black suffering."
Then came a watershed experience. In 1988 she went to a conference between Afrikaans writers and the ANC at Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls. One evening the white and black writers gathered to read their poems in English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa.
"All at once that poetry reading brought home to me what democracy really means," Krog recalled. "For the first time I could see a country with all its people, where everyone has a voice."
Reassured of her own legitimacy, Krog returned home to become more actively involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and face the opprobrium of the whole white community, her parents included.
She did not join the ANC right away, because it was still an illegal organization, but she has since done so and is now the only white member in Orange Free State province.
She was denounced and vilified on her return from the conference, scorned as an ethnic traitor for fraternizing with blacks, whom her kinfolk regarded as enemies of the Afrikaner volk, but despite this Krog says that within herself she felt more fulfilled. She began teaching at a colored school, attending political rallies and even writing political verses to be read there.
In Kroonstad's black and colored townships she was welcomed as "Comrade Antjie."
Then came President Frederik W. de Klerk's Feb. 2 speech un-banning the ANC and pledging to negotiate with it. Suddenly the whites in the town who had been scorning Krog looked at her anew, as though she had been legitimized. They began asking what those folk she had met at Victoria Falls were really like.
Not everyone reacted that way, however. Krog felt that the hatred toward her of the Conservative Party and Afrikaner Resistance Movement extremists intensified. She says it was as though these ultra-nationalists felt Afrikanerdom was being betrayed and that it was people like her, with her deft use of words, who had subverted it from within.
Thus, while half the townsfolk became more friendly, the other half became more venomous -- and death threats against her increased. On the day of de Klerk's speech a man phoned to say he was coming to shoot her at 9 p.m. Krog says she did not report the threat to the police because she regards them as allies of the extremists. She and her husband sent the children to friends and sat up all night waiting for the gunman, who never came.
Nor is it only the whites who have changed. Since de Klerk's speech, Krog says people in the black township of Maokeng, where she once felt so welcome, have fallen into a state of confusion and conflict as rival factions of the ANC clash with each other and with the Black Consciousness movement, and now she is afraid to go there because of the violence.
Krog's explanation for this outbreak of black factionalism is that the township people no longer know what is happening. In the past, she says, the issues were clear. Now they are changing rapidly, and with most of the community too illiterate to read newspapers and too poor to afford radios or TV sets, there is no way they can keep pace with events.
The ANC, still struggling to set up its organizational structure, has not been able to reach outlying places like Kroonstad to explain what is happening to the blacks living there.
"In this atmosphere rumors abound and anyone can set himself up as a spokesman," Krog says.
For the only white ANC member in the town, it is a depressing experience. But on the other hand, the party was a success.