The white taxi driver, taking me in from the airport through Dutch-clean streets, says defensively, "We have no problems here that we can't handle."

The black bellboy, in the space capsule of the hotel elevator, says carefully, "You will like our country - but not excessively."

So begins my first exposure to South Africa, a strange landscape which I shall try to describe here through some of the particular scenes and people encountered in nine wringing days.

My first downtown stroll is deceptive. Suddenly, 9,000 athletes and health addicts start jogging by - on a 25-kilometer run. Leading the pack, running as though he had iron springs in his thighs, is a black. He draws cheerful applause from white spectators, fervent applause and cries in an African language from black spectators. Surprising, I think, and nice.

But the next day the papers say (actually, only the most liberal papers) that the black I saw, a Rhodesian, had tried after the race to go up the city's sightseeing tower and had been denied entry because he was black - though such "petty apartheid" is unusual in "Joburg" now. I assume that foreign papers ignored the race but noted the slight. Which deserved attention?

THROUGH THE good offices of a young American diplomat, I am invited to a barbecue by a man who will be described here as a powerful internal-security figure. Why has he agreed to receive me? I wonder with some excitement.

His greeting is breezy. He cut down the tree by the gate of his pleasant square suburban home, he explains, to open a field of fire after he received threats. Matter of factly, he reports that because of his dog, trained by a previous owner to attack blacks, he has had to pay several costly medical bills for mauled tradesmen.

He seems to want first to demonstrate how tough he is, and he launches into a typical Afrikaner attack on the oneman, one-vote endorsement given by Vice President Mondale last May. "The United States is pushing South Africa to the wall," he shouts. "We will fight to keep what we have built. I have a personal goal - to take one million kaffirs [niggers] with me." This he says while tending the charcoal fire.

"It is not a question of races but of nations," he goes on. "Our blacks are members of separate nations. They vie with each other. True, there is some racism among whites of the lower class, whom the government must bring along slowly, but there is racism of blacks againts whites, too."

The wine flows and the lamb and sausage sizzle and, easing into a more confidential manner, he presents his religious credentials ("I am an elder in the Dutch Reformed Church") in order to underline that personally he fells kindly towards blacks and has sought to persuade high government ministers to treat them better and even spent 300 rand ($370) of his own money to help Soweto blacks reopen a burned school.

I leave feeling that this well-placed member of the Afrikaner establishment, though capable of astonishing crudities ("one million kaffirs "), is nonetheless on the leading edge of change. I promise him a steak in my backyard.

SOWETO: I picture, in the black township of a million people 12 miles from Johannesburg, a seething slum. I see blacks golfing, detached single-family homes set on rolling terrain. Indoor plumbing, heat and electricity are commonly lacking but, on this pleasant spring afternoon, Soweto looks far better than any comparable black residential area I have seen in black Africa. People stroll easily, taking only casual note of whites passing in a car.

Our escort, a Soweto resident, takes us to one of the schools burned out, and since closed, in the 1976 uprising. The gate is locked. "Our school is now a 'prison,'" he says with irony, "to keep out children who wish to learn." A discussion ensues on whether, as the government contends, the kids burned down their own school, or the police did. Who can tell? I try to imagine the response of my barbecue host. It is sickening to view the black crumpled walls.

"At first the children protested against having to learn Afrikaans [the language of the ruling whites]," says our escort, summarizing a commonly heard black perception. "Now they protest against the whole concept of Bantu [separate and unequal] education. Next year it will be against the whole system of apartheid."

We drive on to a Soweto home where a balding black man, speaking as though there is very little time, intones, "They are destroying our children." Flustered, I ask if children swim in the pond visible nearby. "That is off limits," he answers. "Do you know what that pond is used for? For suicides. The police do not let the children in. We fish the bodies out. That is our life here."

A woman in the room picks up the thread: In the uprising, her son began to run. At a warning shot, he halted. "They beat him, they beat him bloody, they left him there on the ground," she says. "He had done nothing." I feel the emotions stirred by these glimpses into Soweto's darkness slicing through the conventional political categories in my mind.

But the next day, I lunch at an elegant country club and those categories begin to reappear. Pretty women are sunning by the pool; no corpses there.

"Don't push us," my host, a business representative, warns in a patient tone. "We will not respond as you think we will. At least wait until after the elections [Nov. 30]-[Prime Minister John] Vorster will have some room to move after that. Unless you Americans push him too hard."

We move to a patio overlooking a manicured lawn. "What does the United States want from us? We feel we are in you way in Africa, you want to eliminate us. How can you risk destroying the best economy in Africa and open the way to war and communism and lose our strategic assets? You demand that we make our sports interracial - to be invited back to the Olympics. We do, and still you feeze us out. What point is there for us to change?" Everyone, I think, has a point.

AT DINNER that night, I listen to a sophisticated darkhaired woman insisting, her voice rising, that although all her friends go to pistol class, she will not go. I think she means that, even symbolically, she will not take up arms against blacks. One evening, she relates, she was driving home and saw two white policemen beating up a black. To her husband's alarm (and later pride), she drove right up to the trio, shone her headlights directly on the scene and leaned on the horn until they stopped. On an other occasion, she bluffed away from her door the police who had come at 3 a.m. looking for blacks living in the servants quarters without permit. Her white house and her courage seem incongruous.

Like so many "English-speakers," she is desperate to have her children grow up abroad. It occurs to me that the black woman I met in Soweto is desperate to have her children grow up alive.

I meet another kind of white woman, a grandmother with-dyed hair driving an airport taxi. Out of nowhere she starts declaiming that the trouble with South Africa is that white men sleep with black women.She would kill the men for it. On her farm, the black and white chickens segregate themselves; so it should be with people.

"I would kill myslef rather than sleep with a black," she declares. "I would not sleep even with a king, even with Seretse Khama" - leader of neighboring Botswana. I say, mischievously, "I hear Seretse is quite a man. How do you think he got to be king?" "Not even with Seretse Khama," she roars, laughing until the tears come.

I HAVE A SERIES of official conversations:

A representative of the Dutch Reformed Church, often regarded as a bulwark of government policy, insists earnestly that the church is working with its traditional discretion and effectiveness to improve race relations. "We have access to 'Brother John' [Vorster]," he says. "We are all 'brethren.' We must preserve our access." He cites approvingly a "moderate" black leader's recent appeal for dialogue but concedes - without, I think, realizing what he is conceding - that he has not met this man. He is eager to criticize the World Council of Churches for its support of African liberation movements.

A leader of "enlightened" opinion wishes Americans to know of the "far-reaching climate for change" now coming upon his country: In business, the universities, the press and elsewhere, Afrikaners are sharpening their criticism, and the elite secret society called the Broederbond is "almost challenging government policy." A pleading tone enters his voice as he says, "Polls show 70 per cent of the people are ready to contemplate change. The people are more advanced than the government suspects. It is a question of more courage and realism in political circles."

A government minister: "You Americans keep hammering at us.It's becoming a sexual obsession with you. You don't know what's going on in our country. You don't read the editorials in the Afrikaans newspapers. You are not paying attention to the debate among the Afrikaners.

The West is weak regarding the Soviet Union. Twelve African states agree with us on the threat of communism. We can get along more or less with our fellow Africans. Twenty-two members of the Organization of African Unity refused to condemn South Africa for intervening in Angola. It's Carter's pressure that makes it difficult for us raising the expectations of the blacks.

A second government minister, more conservative: "The outspokenness of the South African press - the way it criticizes up - shows the outside world that South Africa is a free Western country. But unless the press shows responsibility and stops stirring up people, we will not hesitate to take the necessary measures, even though you will protest."

A third minister considered very liberal by Afrikaner lights: "In 1952, Dr. [Prime Minister H. F.] Verwoerd asked this question: How will we come to terms with the revolution in Africa? His solution was to deal with our blacks just as the African blacks were insisting on being dealt with themselves - to give the blacks full freedom. Thus was our 'homelands' policy born. It was a bad word but a good policy. Otherwise, we felt, we would be kicked out of Africa. Transkei [the first homeland to take independent-nation status] had always been a black nation, just like Nigeria, a distinct people for centuries. That is the road we are going.

"We are a plural society, and in such societies, local and regional government is always more important than national government. In a heterogeneous setting, the tough issues must be dealt with locally. That is what we will do with Soweto and the black townships. And we will do it. You will see."

This "enlightened" spokesman takes for granted, as virtually all Afrikaners do, that racial separateness will continue, though it will be softened.

SO IT IS THAT all land in South Africa is zoned for exclusive use by one race. But recently some young people found a tiny strip of fortuitously unzoned land near downtown Joburg and opened the New York City Club, apparently the country's first multiracial nightclub.

I walk in one weekday night about 11 and find a cavernous room, decorated with a New York skyline mural, throbbing with hard rock and packed with 300 people - white, black, colored, Asian - leaping about on the dance floor and drinking hard liquor and beer. Multiracial couples are dancing, too, including some blond Afrikaners with black girls. The place feels friendly and natural, not like a pickup joint. The scene is mindblowing.

My guide and I order a drink and engage the four blacks at our table. The man nearest me, a commercial artist, shakes hands, and we talk. He has one hand around his wife's shoulder and he puts the other on my arm and, with his wife nodding assent, says, "This is what we want. People coming together to enjoy themselves." I find myself glancing up fondly at the Statue of Liberty over the bandstand and wondering why can it not always be like this?

At Witswaterand, the big, mostly English-speaking university, 15 or so students have gathered to meet me and the dicussion quickly sorts out the "enlightened" ones and the "conservatives."

One of the former says that economic equality must come if racial in inequality is to go, and he supports socialism. He and his mates radiate the incipient guilt they feel for what they know will be the ever greater temptation to use the British passports available to many English-speaking people, and to leave South Africa.

The conservatives (most Afrikaners) at the table scarcely conceal their contempt for the English-speakers. One, leader of a group which invited Vorster on campus, says, "You don't count. You're running. We're staying."

The students urge one of their number to tell about his being "detained" - arrested without being charged. He explains that a condition of his release was that he not report what actually happened to him in detention. He had been distributing leaflets. The state security forces regularly infiltrate campus groups and, by detaining an occasional student, intimidate them all. The students relate this with resignation, as though nothing can change the pattern.

Elsewhere, a black man tells me of his detention: He was forced to stand for long periods, kept from sleeping, interrogated in shifts. His feet swelled and his body ached.

At one point he was taken before an Afrikaner officer who asked him if it was true - it was - that at a certain time and place he had leveled a certain critism at the government.

The man felt that it was the end for him, because he knew that at that point he could only tell the truth. He waited for a terrible second, frozen. Instead, the officer said he respected the black man for his courage, and sent him back to his cell.

A black listener who had oohed and aahed at this story rocks with astonishment at the ending and exclaims, "You don't mean it, an Afrikaner!"

ONE DAY AT LUNCH I receive from a 19-year-old Soweto student, or ex-student, a first-hand report of how the high school boycott protesting Bantu education had been organized. The black cops brought in from outside were attacked in their homes with fire bombs and driven into compounds. Students went door to door explaining that everyone must stay home to make the boycott work.

And if some students preferred to study rather than boycott? "We use force on them. It is too important for us not to." The boy is cool, polite and well-spoken, undramatic, and it takes an effort to realize I am listening to an authentic revolutionary. He conveys not a hatred of whites but a passion, more impressive for being so operational, to win blacks their due.

By startling chance, I later have occasion to meet this very boy's father. When I make the connection, the father grows still and says, after a pause, "What did he say?" Unsure of myself, I reply accurately but incompletely. The father, trembling, says, "I expect to wake up one of these mornings and find he has left the country." A few days later, the father himself is arrested for political activity in the black community. Where is the son?

THE AMERICAN embassy in South Africa has been marvelously diligent in offering blacks the opportunity to meet with Americans, and I lunch there with a dozen Soweto "moderates."

The government's indifference to moderate appeals is cutting the ground out from under people like them, one says, and soon the government will have no blacks to deal with, even if it so chooses. The atmosphere at the table is heavy with the sense of suffering to come. "Our last good meal," one man says.

Then a black woman, shyly but firmly brushing aside protocol, summons up a startling eloquence and urges the United States to use its influence to cut the Western economic ties that, she says, "keep apartheid alive." She explains: "We have nothing to lose. Do not worry about us. We can stand it better than they can."

"You know," another luncheon guest offers, "I have it on good authority that when the Angola crisis came up, Henry Kissinger had to ask someone to show him on the map where Angola was."

"You're lucky he asked," a visitor replies, and the table cracks up. I say to myself, there is pain in these people, but not bitterness. Within a week, six of them are detained.

ON MY LAST AFTERNOON in South Africa, I am exhausted and, for the fun and because I have been touted on multiracial sport, I head for an open track meet at the new Rand Afrikaans University.

A single huge stone building dominates the campus. It encloses a rolling courtyard and there is just one real entrance. The outside walls facing in have the glass. It is a breath-taking representation of the laager , the armed camp, wagons drawn around in a protective circle, the stereotype of the Afrikaner mind.

At the stadium, the few black spectators sit in a distant corner, and there are only few black runners. In the 3,000-meter race, the lone black trails by a full two laps. His progress is painfull and the next race is delayed. All eyes are on him as he labors around the track and, imagining the crowd's gathering impatience, I find myself almost wishing to avert my gaze.

The black runner plods across the finish line. Suddenly, to me unexpectedly, the white crowd delivers a token tribute of friendly applause for his gameness. In turn, the runner clasps hands over head in a mock victory salute and flashes a grin. The crowd snorts back in sportsman's pleasure. Is this South Africa?