"I'm 49 1/2 years old, and I'm tired. I don't mean that in a high-flown sense. One has lived through a life. And for 29 or 30 of those years, I've been waiting for the beginnings of some kind of decency in this country. And still one waits. And one sees the chances of it coming as even more precarious at this moment than ever before. I end up being what I was when I started -- confused." -- ATHOL FUGARD

ANY ENCYCLOPEDIA will tell you that Port Elizabeth, the sprawling South African seaport on the Indian Ocean, exports iron ore, manganese, citrus and wool, that its small factories churn out shoes and tires, that its assembly lines produce gleaming automobiles. There is no mention, however, of what may be that city's most significant product -- the plays of Athol Fugard, plays that dissect the agonies of apartheid with the cool unflinching precision of a surgeon.

Although occasionally he has left his home town for more welcoming locales, Fugard invariably returns to Port Elizabeth. It is his microcosm. Its factories, its bungalows, its shanties and its mudflats have provided him with his settings. Its political and social tensions are the coil that keeps his dramas ticking away, like a time bomb in a countdown. And among the lower echelons of its populace -- the wretched and the dispossessed -- he has heard voices that speak not merely of injustice, but also of humanity's obstinate will to cling, against all odds, to a tatter of hope, decency, sanity. Even "Boesman and Lena" -- bits of human detritus, shunted from one hovel to another, dragging their meager possessions on their backs, and fighting fiercely with one another, because inflicting pain is all that is left them -- have the residual dignity of survivors.

English on his father's side, Afrikaner on his mother's, Fugard has also become one of South Africa's most persistent critics, although he likes to say that "in the world of today, my limply raised fist of rebellion counts for nothing." Still, his voice is being heard as never before. "Boesman and Lena" and "The Blood Knot" have long entered the modern repertory. "Sizwe Bansi Is Dead," and "The Island" have won a handful of international prizes, including a Tony Award in 1972 for South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona. After surfacing at Yale Rep last year, Fugard's latest drama, "A Lesson From Aloes" moved on to Broadway; by the end of this season, it will have played in seven regional theaters across the country. Locally, Arena Stage will open a production of "Aloes" on Wednesday, while Howard University is reviving "Sizwe Bansi" Nov. 12-15 and 19-22.

It takes an overseas operator less than 30 seconds to place the call, and suddenly the playwright is on the line, speaking up loudly. In Port Elizabeth the supper dishes have just been washed and put away. Somewhere in the Fugard house, a dog is barking and a door slams.

"It remains very surprising to me," Fugard is saying, his crisp accent flattening the vowels like tin cans, "that I can set out to tell a story of a very small corner of South Africa -- not even a corner of the world, really -- and that it ends up meaning something to people elsewhere. Every time I've started to write a play, I've looked atthe ingredients and thought, 'Well, my god, this is one that is only going to mean something to South Africans.' I am always a bit astounded when it resonates for audiences elsewhere. But I've never taken that for granted.

"It was one of your writers who taught me an important lesson in that respect and gave me my first encouragement. Back in my late teens, I discovered William Faulkner, and you certainly can't conceive of a writer more regional than Faulkner. The region was one of his own imagination, in fact. But here I was in South Africa, a farm boy without any experience of America, reading him avidly. I devoured the whole opus. And I knew then that I, too, wanted to have something to do with words on a paper . . . But right from the beginning, I thought of myself as a regional writer."

"ATHOL JUST puts down on paper what is. I know all the people in his plays," says Zakes Mokae, stretching his legs out and leaning back on the battered green-room sofa in Arena's Kreeger Theatre. A burly man with honey-brown skin and an expansive smile that reveals the pink of his gums, Mokae is one of the few black South African actors to have achieved prominence in the theater, mostly outside the country he hasn't seen since 1972. "In a way," he says, "the three characters in 'Aloes' are Sheila Fugard's wife , Athol and me. I've been through it all with them. We've had the same arguments, the same suspicions. Despite our friendship, you just can't avoid the fact that one of you is white, the other black. You're bound to have disagreements.

"I once lived with Athol and Sheila for a long time, which was against the law. I had a key to their flat and I'd go through the back door, as if I were the delivery boy. Whenever I ran into the landlord, I'd tell him I was just on an errand. If I'd been caught, though, I'd have gone to jail and Athol would have gotten away with a warning. It's that way. There are all these things Athol can do, because he is white, and I cannot.

"When we were performing 'Blood Knot' together, I was supposed to carry my passbook an obligatory internal passport for blacks at all times. I said, 'I'm not going to do it.' So of course, I got picked up and taken to jail. With the one telephone call you're allowed, I'd call Athol. And he would have to bring the passbook down to the jail before they'd let me out. No matter how many times it happened, I refused to carry the passbook. Each time, Athol would have to bring it down to the jail. But he never objected. He knew that it was a stand I was making as a black man, and he had to respect that.

"I used to sleep on the couch in the living room. Athol and Sheila had a baby daughter, Lisa, and every morning when the baby woke up, he would bring her out to the living room and plop her down in bed with me. The baby would crawl all over the covers and pull my beard and keep me awake. And Athol would return to his bedroom, lock the door and go back to sleep."

Mokae laughs warmly at the memory. "Tricky bastard," he says.

LIKE ITS predecessors, "A Lesson From Aloes" explores the human consequences of a regime that segregates human beings into four castes, according to the gradations in the color of their skin (white, coloured, Bantu or native, and Asian), and then relegates each group to separate, distinctly unequal, living areas. For those who object, preventive detention has become the rule. Under the notorious banning order, the government can put anyone under virtual house arrest with no provisions for appeal. The banned individual cannot participate in social gatherings of more than two people, be quoted in the newspapers, belong to a trade union or attend an educational institution.

"Back in the early 1960s," Fugard recalls, "my wife and I were at a gathering in Port Elizabeth with a lot of politically minded friends. Included in the company was somebody, a black, who had broken a banning order just to be with us, just to share some comradeship with other people again. In the middle of the evening there was a knock at the door, and the security police broke in. After the usual number, the man was taken away, thrown into detention for a period of time and subjected to intense pressure and abuse. Afterwards, he decided that he couldn't take being in South Africa any longer and left the country on a one-way exit permit.

"There was one other important fact about that evening. Circumstances being what they were, those of us who were left in the room after he'd been taken away knew that one of us was most probably an informer and had tipped off the police beforehand. Most people settled on the wrong man. Although he was totally innocent, he was, as we say, sent to Coventry shunned by the comrades and went on to suffer enormously himself."

The play that grew out of this incident took nearly 10 years to gestate. Two earlier versions -- "The Informer" and "A Man Without Scenery" -- failed to jell, although Fugard now believes it was a question of getting the proper distance on events. Then about five years ago when he thought that the play had "disappeared from my life completely, the whole complex of ideas presented itself again for better or worse."

This time, he began at the moment when Steve Daniels, as he came to call the arrested black man, is about to leave permanently for England. Before departing, he pays a final call on a failed Afrikaner farmer, Piet Bezuidenhout. Once a fighter for liberal causes, Piet has been drained of energy and commitment and now devotes himself to his collection of aloes, a prickly cactus-like plant which alone, Fugard implies, has the adaptive mechanism necessary for survival in South Africa. Piet's English wife, Gladys, has tottered on the edge of madness ever since the special police raided their home and confiscated her intimate diaries. The evening is marked by sad, futile reminiscences, lingering suspicions, flagging friendships, and Fugard's own sense of a country closing in on three people, crushing them.

It is, Fugard admits, one of his most "claustrophobic" plays.

Steve: You're fooling yourself, Piet, if you think there's any hope left. Do what I'm doing, man. Get out. Join me in England. We can sit back and talk as much and as loud as we like . . . because that's all we ever did here. Somebody was telling me there's a place over there where you can stand up on a box and say anything you like.

Gladys: Poor Peter! It's all gone wrong, hasn't it? He had such high hopes for this reunion with you. I wasn't exaggerating when I said he talks to his aloes. That's all he's got left for company. FROM "A LESSON FROM ALOES"

REASSURED that he's not needed at rehearsal for another hour, Zakes Mokae settles back, visibly at home in Arena's backstage surroundings. He has acted at the Royal Court in London, on Broadway and in regional theaters across the United States and Canada. "I could probably make a living performing only in Athol's plays," he jokes. "This year I've been inundated with offers to do 'Aloes.' "

His longstanding relationship with the playwright goes back more than two decades, when they met in an artists' union in Johannesburg. One of eight children, Mokae was then a sometime saxophone player who allowed himself to be drafted into Fugard's first full-length dramas about life in the black ghetto, "No-Good Friday" and "Nongogo," rehearsing and performing them, as the author once noted, "wherever possible."

"Athol is kind of shy until he gets to know you," says Mokae. "But coming from Port Elizabeth, where there are a lot of wineries, he also likes his sip of wine. Then he goes on and on and on. I generally say nothing until he looks at me and says, 'You think I talk too much,' and I tell him, 'You know you talk too much!' To me, he's just another guy to drink with and get mad at and laugh with."

In 1960, Fugard spent a year in London, trying unsuccessfully to accumulate theatrical experience, but returned home to face his country's deepening racial crisis. By this time he had in his head the germ of "Blood Knot," a play about the doomed aspirations of two brothers -- one light enough to pass as white, the other too dark to be anything but an outcast.

"Even when he showed me the play and we began rehearsals, I didn't take him too seriously," Mokae says. "It seemed more like fooling around to me."

Eventually on a Sunday in October of 1961, "a day nothing ever happens in Johannesburg," the drama received a staging in a rehearsal room seating only about 80. Fugard played the light-skinned brother, Mokae the dark-skinned brother. The performance, Mokae says, lasted four hours without intermission, but the audience -- racially mixed in defiance of the authorities -- was spellbound. "We went out for a drink afterwards," says Mokae, "and when we woke up the next morning, it was all over the newspapers. And not just the theater pages, either. Offers poured in from producers who wanted to move the play into a real theater and then take it on a tour of the country. Everyone wanted to see it, and the tour was sold out before we even opened. It happened so fast the government couldn't do anything about it. The authorities had been caught napping."

In South Africa's major cities, the play repeated its extraordinary success. "We traveled by train, Athol in first class, me in second," says Mokae. "He could get booze, but we didn't even have dining facilities in our car. So at every stop, he'd step down on the platform with a bottle under his coat and walk casually alongside the train. Then when the cops were looking the other way, he'd slip it to me through the window. Here we were appearing side by side in this great play, and we couldn't even travel together."

When "Blood Knot" was taken to London, Mokae went with it and stayed on. "There have never been many opportunities for black actors in South Africa," he notes dryly.

DESPITE THE condemnation of the South African regime that is implicit in his plays, Fugard declines to see himself as a political writer, which did not prevent the authorities from confiscating his passport when he attempted to visit the United States in 1972 for the premiere of "Boesman and Lena." Nonetheless, he acknowledges that his worldwide reputation has afforded him a certain measure of freedom from persecution.

"The same sense of anger and outrage that motivated me 20 years ago, still motivates me," he explains. "But my sense of disgust with the way this system continues to work is a little more mature. My judgments and utterances are perhaps a little less . . . feverish. The problem I have with being labeled a political playwright is that it sets up certain expectations on the part of audiences and critics that prevent them from seeing the simple story I want to tell. Labels under any circumstances are regrettable, but especially when it comes to something as vital as doing a piece of theater.

"I wouldn't deny the possibility of a revolutionary playwright, one who can actually change society. But it's not me. I'm not as passionately committed to trying to blueprint an alternative society as someone like Brecht was. I'm not trying to pass on ideas and possibilities for the future, although hopefully that may be a byproduct of some of my plays. I'm afraid the most I can claim for myself, in terms of a situation that comes as near to being barbaric as South Africa does, is that I may add something to what remains of the civilizing spirit in this country. And I do think theater is unquestionably a civilizing influence."

OCCASIONALLY, Mokae speculates on how his life might have turned out if he had not met Fugard. "Maybe I would have gone on with my music. Most probably I'd be locked up in jail. That's where most of us end up anyway. To meet an 18-year-old black in that country who hasn't been arrested, well, it's very rare. And jail for a black man is a harrowing experience. Always brutal.

"To survive, you just go on with day-to-day living, and confront the issues as they come up. My mother is what they call a 'cleaning girl.' She has worked for two generations of the same family in Johannesburg, and now the young daughter she helped raise is married. But it's not a good marriage. Sometimes the daughter will get in her car and drive into the black township in the middle of the night, knock at my mother's door, and ask to be let in. 'My husband is beating me again,' she cries, and she throws herself on my mother's shoulder and spends the rest of the night with her. And the next morning, my mother marches over to their house in the white area and shakes her finger at the husband and tells him he must never do that again, and he hangs his head and listens to her. Then she returns to the ghetto, where she belongs. Isn't that funny?

"You have to learn to laugh. If you take things too seriously there, you go crazy. Whenever I do Athol's plays, I always have fun. It's true, there's a lot of humor in them. I always crack up. But I miss the country, too. My parents are old, and I want to see them before they die. Sometimes, when I am acting in Athol's plays, and there are references to the little towns I've known and visited, I get this sudden rush of feeling."

NOWADAYS when Fugard travels abroad, it is mainly to oversee the fate of his works. He describes his latest, " 'Master Brown' . . . and the Boys" as "based on an element of myself as a child, and dealing, quite inexplicably, with a great surge of hope." He would like to stage it first in the United States "because I can get the actors I want there and also because, gentle as the text is, it has a couple of actions and figures of language that I don't think I could get by our censors." Otherwise, his life and his art remain insoluably wedded to South Africa, even as it careens off on some fateful collision course.

"I would prefer never to have been a playwright, if it meant not having a situation of such stark tensions and polarities," says the voice in Port Elizabeth, rising over the static on the line. "But I suppose I must be honest and say that, regrettable as they are, it is the very polarities and tensions in this country that put me up on the tightrope and got me walking. Now it is too late to leave."

"We've got a lot of time left, you know. Almost a whole life . . . stretching ahead . . . As I said . . . I'm not worried at all. Not at all . . . Too worried. I mean, other men get by without a future. In fact, I think there's quite a lot of people getting by without a future these days." MORRIS IN "THE BLOOD KNOT"