Seventeen children and 28 women were arrested yesterday during a special Mother's Day apartheid protest that drew about 150 demonstrators to the South African Embassy.

The women and children, many dressed in their Sunday best, were carted off by the police and charged with "demonstrating within 500 feet of an embassy, a misdemeanor," according to a police spokesman.

The children, who carried permission slips from their parents to be arrested, were later released into the custody of their parents.

The women either paid $50 fines or were released on their own recognizance, the spokesman said.

Among those arrested were Peggy Cooper Cafritz, D.C.'s commissioner of arts and humanities, who organized the protest; Maria Walker, wife of the Rev. John Walker, and Sharon Robinson, daughter of the late baseball legend Jackie Robinson.

"Women are a tremendous forum for change in all . . . imperiled countries," Cafritz said. "We mothers want to instill fire in the bellies of the children of this country because it seems to be something we've lost," she said, marching and pushing her 6-month-old son, Zachary, in a stroller.

The protesters probably will never face charges. Charges have been dropped against all protesters arrested since embassy demonstrations began on Thanksgiving eve.

The demonstrations, which have resulted in more than 2,000 arrests, are intended to help raise public concern about apartheid. Yesterday's march was the first Sunday protest, said Cafritz, who suggested the special demonstration to the TransAfrica lobby group that oversees the protests.

"Anytime you have mothers and children in a demonstration, it has a special poignance, particularly on Mother's Day," said Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica. He said the march was appropriate because it was "to remember mothers who have borne the brunt of apartheid . . . mothers who have lost so many children . . . . "

In the midday heat, children hoisted on their shoulders signs nearly as big as themselves.

There were first-time protesters like Lucy Martin, 12, who was marching with her mother and two brothers. "I didn't want to come at first," she said, then added, "I want to stop the government from separating the blacks and whites."

District Board of Parole member John Gibson pushed his 81-year-old mother, Julia Gibson, in a wheelchair while his brother James, a former city administrator, pushed their 94-year-old father, Calvin, in another wheelchair. Behind James Gibson were his wife and two children.

"If I can help my people in any way, I'll go my length," said the elderly Julia Gibson in a clear voice, holding a protest sign in her lap.

When the protesters arrived at the embassy, at 3051 Massachusetts Ave. NW., the women and children linked hands and marched up to the doors, where Cafritz knocked with one hand while holding her infant son in the other arm.

Later, she handed the baby to her husband.

When no one answered the door, the group lined up in front of the embassy and, facing the street, sang "We Shall Overcome."

D.C. City Council member Betty Ann Kane arrived at the embassy, walking up to take a little girl's hand before joining in the singing.

Two minutes later, Kane was the first to be arrested as District officers led the protesters away one by one, putting the youngest children in the police cars.