Like the race-torn country of their birth, South Africans in the Washington area regard the continuing antiapartheid demonstrations at the South African Embassy with emotions that are as different as the racial classifications they grew up with in their homeland.

For Shirley Lue, who is light-skinned and considered "colored" or of mixed race by white-ruled South African government standards, the protests have heightened American concerns about apartheid while pressuring the South African government to end it.

"As a South African, it is a tremendous experience just to see the strength of commitment and the perseverance the people are showing to this issue," said Lue, a 34-year-old consultant who lives in Northwest Washington. She calls the embassy picketing and arrests -- which began Nov. 21 and are now a weekday afternoon ritual -- "the first visible sign that there are people in America who care about black South Africans."

But John Chettle, white director of the South Africa Foundation in North and South America, an organization that represents South African business in the United States, fears the protests could detract from the progress he sees under way in South Africa's race relations.

"I understand the commitment of the people out there [at the embassy], but I personally believe that they're wrong and that the way they're going about it can lead to some backlash," he said.

Opinions about the protests and on what is happening -- or should be happening -- in South Africa vary among Washington area South Africans, a loose-knit community of undetermined size that includes students, embassy personnel, journalists, South Africans married to Americans and others who call or once called South Africa home.

There are about 16,000 South Africa-born residents in this country, according to the 1980 U.S. census, including 128 in the District. There are no figures on South Africans in the Washington suburbs.

Interviews with a dozen South Africans here revealed divergent reactions to apartheid protests and proposed U.S. sanctions against the South African government. Viewpoints generally were shaped by firsthand experiences -- experiences that, for the most part, depended on race.

Most whites, for instance, tended to argue for gradual reforms, and even whites who support the protests stopped short of endorsing the withdrawal of U.S. investments.

Black South Africans, however, had little patience with change through gradual means and strongly support economic sanctions. Blacks, too, were less optimistic than whites about whether reform could be accomplished soon enough to avoid a civil war.

Despite recent riots in some black ghettos and a new government crackdown against black political leaders, Chettle was upbeat about the changes he said are taking place in South Africa. He cited several desegregation actions taken by the government, including the integration of most public places.

And though he called Pretoria's new crackdown "an overreaction," he said proposed economic sanctions are opposed by most South African blacks because they would be the first to be hurt.

Stephen Mncube, a representative of the Council for Black Education and Research of South Africa, supported such sanctions, arguing that black South Africans "have never really been integrated in as human beings to the mainstream of the country's economy. So another degree of suffering does not matter."

Mncube, who has been in the United States for 20 years, said he is gratified that Americans are beginning to think about the plight of his nation.

At the South African Embassy, however, Ambassador Bernardus G. Fourie, 68, is more than a little annoyed that the arrests outside his office are drawing so much attention and that anyone should think they are having an impact on South African policies.

"In the beginning it was a novelty, a news item, but it has had no influence whatsoever," Fourie said.

Supporters of the apartheid protests, which have been carried out at the embassy and in 22 other cities, resulting in more than 1,700 arrests, call most of the recent reforms "cosmetic." New changes in the South African constitution, which granted limited political power to coloreds and Indians but not to blacks, have been denounced as attempts to fragment the nation's black majority.

Yet some who support the demonstrations often disagree about what should be done in South Africa and what its future holds.

In separate interviews, two women friends -- one white, the other colored, according to South African definitions -- lashed out at apartheid, having both seen it up close but from different vantage points. Neither woman wanted to be quoted by name.

The white South African, 27, a midwife here for the past three years, grew up in Swaziland, where there is no color bar, but she saw the effects of apartheid while working as a nurse in Cape Town

"In Cape Town, I worked with colored and black nurses who were paid one-third of my salary even though we had the exact same training," she said.

Her friend, a 32-year-old student and administrative aide who has lived here for the past four years, felt the effects of racial separation firsthand. There were segregated schools, segregated transportation, segregated housing. And something else.

"I've been stopped and insulted by white policemen," she said, remembering when she attended evening functions and white male coworkers gave her rides.

"And the white men with me were too afraid to say anything," she said.

The woman bitterly ticked off the racial stratification in South Africa, describing it as a pecking order, with whites at the top, blacks at the bottom, and coloreds and Indians in between. Orientals, she said, are given "honorary white" status, which means they can attend white schools but can't marry whites.

The white midwife opposed economic sanctions, fearing they would put blacks out of work. Her friend favored some selective sanctions, arguing that multinational companies "are propping up the last bastion of white supremacy."

Recently back from a month's visit to her former home, the white woman found that tension among South African blacks had "definitely accelerated." Though she has applied for U.S. citizenship, she held out hope that the situation in South Africa "is going to end peacefully."

Her friend was pessimistic.

"South Africans, especially the young people, are very, very angry, and very despairing, and conditions are so bad that dying is not as bad as continued oppression," she said. "I think the white minority has dug their own graves -- they are right to be fearful."

It is no small irony that South Africans here are watching a Free South Africa Movement unfold in a nation that has experienced its own racial strife and in a city where the black majority now enjoys the political and social rights South Africa has yet to share with its black majority.

"It's easy to draw comparisons," said Ambassador Fourie, who predicted that blacks in South Africa's urban areas "will shortly have virtually the same rights" as their counterparts in the District.

There is one major difference. The District's black majority, they say, belongs to a nation with a white majority: There was never that in-grown fear where black majority-rule was seen as a national threat.

On a personal level, though, most South Africans here find race relations vastly different. Whites talk of having black neighbors but say people in South Africa would find this strange. Most blacks talk of feeling free -- "free from fear" -- to walk about the city and to go to public places without harassment.

"You walk around the District, and it feels the same as Soweto," said Mpho Tutu, 21, the daughter of Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu. A junior at Howard University, majoring in electrical engineering, Tutu said racism is present in South Africa, where it is institutionalized, and in the United States, including the District, where it is less overt.

Tutu disputed Fourie's contention that the protests have not swayed Pretoria, saying, "The South African government never likes to admit it's being influenced by what goes on outside its borders."

The latest ghetto riots and arrests of black political leaders show an increase in fear on the government's part, she said. But such actions only add "more fuel" for the antiapartheid demonstrations."

The embassy protests, according to all the South Africans interviewed, have definitely increased interest in their country, and they are happy to explain the situation from their point of view.

"You literally can't be at a party in this town 10 minutes without the subject coming up," said Chettle, of the South Africa Foundation. He said he has encountered curiosity but never criticism.

Mpho Tutu agreed the protests have caused "a very great upsurge" in the number of people who ask questions about her country. "But they're asking intelligent questions -- something other than, 'Where is it?' "