For most of his adult life, Joe Slovo, the white Marxist and former Johannesburg lawyer who has been trying for a generation to overthrow the white-minority government of South Africa, has been on the run.

As a militant protest organizer, he endured a decade of legal harassment inside South Africa before fleeing in 1963. Since then he has conducted a campaign of violent sabotage from exile as a top military official of the outlawed African National Congress. He has survived assassination attempts, the murder of his wife, South African academic Ruth First, and his own expulsion last year from Mozambique, where he had operated for a half-dozen years.

To the South African government, the 58- year-old Slovo is Public Enemy Number One, the evil white mastermind directing a crusade of terrorism and murder and manipulating blacks inside his movement with a script written in Moscow. To many of the government's foes, he is a hero and his late wife a martyr.

For years, Slovo studiously avoided publicity. But the last year has been one of ferment and reevaluation, both inside South Africa's white ruling establishment and within the organization that seeks its demise. There have been voices urging the government toward fundamental change before time runs out, and there are other voices urging the ANC to change tactics and abandon revolutionary violence.

Recently Slovo, an architect of the ANC's sabotage campaign, decided to break precedent and speak out publicly. In a three-hour interview with The Washington Post at a clandestine location -- his first interview ever with a Western news organization -- he derided the present "reforms" advocated by the South African government and reaffirmed his movement's commitment to armed struggle as the only way to compel real change.

He also emphasized his view that an ANC- ruled South Africa would be a socialist state as well as a multiracial one.

Slovo also confirmed publicly for the first time that as chief of staff of the ANC's secret military wing Umkonto we Sizwe -- "Spear of the Nation" in Zulu -- he has been involved in planning the various bombings of government buildings and strategic installations that have killed more than two dozen persons and shaken South Africa over the last five years.

Above all, Slovo stressed that despite the ANC's recent setbacks in Mozambique and Swaziland, where the movement's operations have virtually been shut down, he sees South Africa moving slowly but inexorably toward a major upheaval.

In "Burger's Daughter," South African novelist Nadine Gordimer writes that "Communists are the world's last optimists." So it is with Joe Slovo. He says he believes the next five years could mark the breaking point for white rule, and he clings to the idea that a single, well-placed spark -- a police murder in Soweto on a hot weekend, for example -- could set off the final conflagration.

Asked if he expected to return in his lifetime as a free man to a black-ruled South Africa, Joe Slovo, communist and optimist, replied, "Absolutely yes."

Slovo's story, along with that of his late wife, is a tale of two people who have played a pivotal role in the long-running drama of resistance to white rule. But it is also a story of a lost generation of white opponents of apartheid, of people who surrendered -- indeed scorned -- the many privileges white society bestowed upon them. In the end they paid a terrible price for their dissent: prison, exile and death.

First and Slovo were two of the leading white intellectuals who seemed to dominate the freedom movement in the 1950s. Before she was prohibited from writing or speaking publicly, First was responsible for journalistic exposes of some of the crueler aspects of the apartheid system. Slovo was a coauthor of the Freedom Charter, the ringing 1955 document that many hope may someday serve as South Africa's Declaration of Independence.

Slovo says they worked hand in hand with black leaders such as Nelson Mandela, now jailed for life, and the late ANC president Albert Luthuli, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. But others contend communists like Slovo and First became obstacles, pushing the movement toward a prearranged goal and underestimating the strength and ruthlessness of their opponents in the government.

Although both Jewish, he and his wife came from far different backgrounds. She was the daughter of a prosperous furniture manufacturing family whose father and mother passed on their socialist beliefs to her. He was the son of poor Lithuanian immigrants who came to South Africa when he was 9. He was forced to leave school after sixth grade to earn a living, circumventing the rules to enter law school under a special provision for veterans after serving in World War Two. When he graduated from law school, he won top honors.

They were a complicated couple. She made enemies easily, although her friends remain extremely loyal to her. "She was abrasive, meticulous, demanding, extremely critical, yet very loved," recalls Albie Sachs, a close friend and fellow exile who lives in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. "She insisted on the highest quality work and thought. There's not a single important decision of the movement in the last 30 years that doesn't bear her imprint in some way."

She made similar demands of her husband, who is easier going, more self-confident and optimistic. As he himself put it, "She tested the reasoning behind everything -- especially behind me. She kept me from becoming an apparatchik."

Their passionate involvement with the Communist Party became the glue that brought and held them together. One year after their wedding their names were near the top of the list of 600 people proscribed from politics under one of the new South African regime's earliest edicts, the Suppression of Communism Act.

The South African Communist Party was a small group known for its ideological orthodoxy and close ties to Moscow. But it also had some of the generation's best minds, people who adhered to basic doctrine while increasingly allying themselves with far larger mass movements like the ANC.

The '50s were heady times when each side -- the government and its foes -- sought new strategies to defeat the other. For Slovo and First, it was a time of intense activity, underground meetings, protests and conspiracies. After it was outlawed, the party went underground and members helped set up new groups and publications. As the government banned each, another came into existence in a cat-and-mouse game that continued throughout the decade. In 15 years, Ruth First worked for five leftist periodicals -- each one banned or driven out of existence in turn.

As the representative of one of these groups, the Congress of Democrats, Slovo secretly participated in writing the Freedom Charter, but he could not legally be present at the meeting at which it was adopted. He recalls lying on a tin roof 500 yards away watching the proceedings through binoculars.

But as time went on, the struggle grew more difficult to sustain as the government's tactics became more ruthless and sophisticated. In December 1956, Ruth First was among 156 people charged with treason, a capital offense, in a legal proceeding that lasted four years. Slovo was part of the defense team until he also was charged with the same offense. In the end all were either found innocent by the courts or released after embarrassed prosecutors realized their case was fatally weak. But the trial had meant four years of preoccupation and anxiety that left little time for either political activities or family life.

The result also gave participants a false sense of self-confidence that led many to fatally underestimate their opponent. After a wave of protests following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1961, the government cracked down, declaring a state of emergency, outlawing the ANC and arresting 1,600 persons.

Having long been accustomed to operating illegally, the ANC's leaders continued to do so without taking new precautions. The atmosphere remained loose and nonconspiratorial even after the leadership under black attorney Nelson Mandela decided in 1962 to organize a military wing to strike against economic targets to "bring the government to its senses."

Slovo was one of the earliest leaders of the group, whose members met regularly at a farmhouse in suburban Rivonia, outside of Johannesburg. "I had been banned from attending meetings since 1955, but we were going to four or five meetings a day and getting away with it," Slovo recalls. "We were coming in and out of Rivonia in our own car."

Then the government struck. Using informants and confessions, some of them obtained by torture, according to documented cases, the security police quickly exposed and destroyed the underground network. By late 1963, all of the major leaders were either behind bars serving life sentences, like Mandela, or had fled the country.

Slovo had left on an "external mission" in June 1963 one month before a police raid rounded up key figures at Rivonia. His wife was arrested a month later and held for nearly four months without charge or access to a lawyer while police unsuccessfully attempted to force her to divulge secrets about the movement. Upon her release, she too left the country with their three daughters.

Ruth First was a prolific writer turning out books on African military rulers, the Libyan revolution, South African novelist Olive Schreiner and a two-volume study of Mozambican migrant workers. But the book that may outlast the others is "117 Days," a simple, 144-page account of her time in detention.

The self-image of the committed freedom fighter is there, but there are glimpses of another, more recognizable person as well: of a daughter and mother worried her mother won't be able to cope with her three children; of a woman anxious about her clothes and her lack of makeup. When she grasps the bars of her cell window each day to peer at the outside world, she first wraps them in tissues so that her hands won't get grimy.

Most of all, it is a portrait of a woman on the edge. She fears she will crack, and decides to feed her interrogators a mixture of lies and half-truths, implicating only herself and those she knows have already fled the country. It doesn't fool the police and she becomes more and more desperate, breaking into hysterical weeping, and eventually taking an overdose of sleeping pills in an abortive suicide attempt.

Life in exile was not easy. She moved from job to job and cause to cause, studying revolutionary movements in the Third World. Slovo helped reconstruct the underground network and cement the close ties between the ANC and the Soviet bloc that gradually brought the movement the weapons and training it needed to launch a new sabotage campaign inside South Africa. There were long separations and many tensions.

The coming to independence in 1975 of former Portuguese colonies Mozambique and Angola was a boon both for their movement and for them personally. It gave the ANC a new set of rear bases far closer to South Africa from which to plan operations. Eventually Slovo and First moved to Maputo. He set up an operational center for the movement, while she became research director of a Marxist think tank at Eduardo Mondlane University.

South Africa's response to his activities was swift and harsh. In January 1981, commandos disguised in Mozambican uniforms crossed the border and traveled 50 miles to the outskirts of Maputo, where they assaulted three ANC houses, killing 13. One of the victims was a white Portuguese electrician ambushed as he drove through the area. Mozambican authorities have concluded the commandoes mistook him for Slovo.

In 1983, after a car bomb planted outside the headquarters of the South African air force in Pretoria killed 19, the South Africans retaliated with an air strike against the Maputo suburb of Matola. Later in the year they blew up an ANC office after yet another blast inside South Africa. They also supplied insurgents rebels inside Mozambique with arms, training and supplies and encouraged a war of attrition that eventually compelled the Marxist government to agree to the Nkomati nonaggression pact that has put an end to ANC military activities there. Slovo's expulsion from Maputo topped Pretoria's list of demands during negotiations over the agreement.

But in the end it was the academic, not the warrior, who became a casualty. In August 1982, Ruth First was killed at her university office in Maputo when she opened a parcel addressed to her that contained a bomb.

There is no way to establish with certainty the identity of her killer. The explosion destroyed most of the physical evidence and those familiar with the investigation by Mozambican police say it was enthusiastic but ineffectual.

There is, however, much speculation. In South Africa, theories range from the possibility she was the victim of ANC infighting -- "a horrific lie," says Slovo -- to speculation the bomb was sent by a rival black power group, the Pan Africanist Congress, whose leaders have often decried the power and influence of whites within the ANC.

Slovo says he is certain she was killed by someone in the South African security apparatus because she was the ANC's most important link to Frelimo and he sees her murder as a prelude to Nkomati. "In the theoretical scheme of things which Ruth tried to promote there was no place for the expectation that you could get any change from a bargain with Pretoria," he said in a recent talk in Maputo on the second anniversary of her death. "In this sense she was in their way. And so someone among them ordered the parcel to be prepared and went off to have his dinner." South African officials have denied any role in her death.

She is buried in a simple grave in a special section of the municipal cemetery on the southern edge of Maputo. There are 18 ANC members there, 16 of them blacks, and only two died of natural causes. It is a long way -- physically, ideologically, emotionally -- from home.

Several thousand mourners came to the ceremony, among them several top officials of the Mozambican government who repledged that day their commitment to the ANC's cause. Nineteen months later Nkomati was signed, and a few nights after that, Mozambican police broke down the door of the house Slovo and First had shared to confiscate his weapons.

In "117 Days," she recalled her brief elation when she was finally released from jail without prior notice. She was home by lunchtime that day. But the book ends with an eerie echo of what was to come: "When they left me in my own house at last, I was convinced that it was not the end, that they would come again."