For the African National Congress, the war against apartheid has come to the end of the beginning. For the first time, it is possible to glimpse the combination of forces inside and outside South Africa that could eventually overthrow the white-dominated regime.

The ANC, the outlawed group that leads the anti-apartheid fight, expects a long and violent conflict that could last many years, possibly into the 21st century. The ANC dismisses the P.W. Botha government's present talk of "reform" as wholly inadequate, designed to impress hesitant international bankers and corporate executives rather than a genuine effort to start dismantling apartheid.

The organization stresses that it is willing to talk to anybody about dismantling apartheid. Indeed, one ANC leader, Thabo Mbeki, told The Washington Post recently that the ANC "would be prepared to negotiate" with Botha himself. But ANC leaders also worry about over-optimism. They fear that some activists may be developing unreasonable hopes that victory -- or even the start of serious negotiations -- is just around the corner. And they fear that amid talk of reform and negotiations, people may forget the simple but painful fact that the white-dominated government in South Africa won't give up power unless it is forced to do so.

ANC headquarters is located here in the dusty Zambian capital of Lusaka, some 600 miles due north of Pretoria. In recent conversations here, leaders of the congress outlined their strategy:

*The ANC's growing guerrilla army, Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), will step up its attacks and take less care to avoid casualties among civilians. Umkhonto will also expand the war into the rural bantustans, the poor, fragmented territories where apartheid requires more than half of all blacks to live.

*The ANC will continue with its campaign to make the black urban townships "ungovernable." By this, the congress means driving out the remaining blacks who collaborate with apartheid and replacing them with the kind of representative community groups that already make up the two million-strong and still-legal United Democratic Front.

*The organization will continue to encourage the growth of the independent, mostly black labor movement, which has already enrolled some 18 per cent of all black workers and united most of them into a single, powerful new federation.

*The ANC hopes for more of the kind of international support that swept across America and Europe during 1985. But it cautions that only comprehensive economic sanctions that go far beyond the mild measures approved so far will force the white government into genuine negotiations.

*Finally, the ANC has strongly re-affirmed its long-standing commitment to a "non-racial" South Africa -- to the view, expressed in the first line of its Freedom Charter, that the country "belongs to all who live in it, black and white."

ANC headquarters is a small, one-story structure off a back alley in Lusaka. It is surprisingly unpretentious for an organization that claims millions of supporters. The congress has scattered other offices across the city, as a precaution against more of the South African military raids that have already killed scores of people in neighboring countries like Botswana, Mozambique and Lesotho.

When I visited ANC headquarters recently after being away for two years, I sensed a new feeling of optimism, best embodied in a new slogan, "Freedom in our lifetime." Such a statement may not sound particularly hopeful, especially when you hear it from people in their 30s and 40s. But to members of an organization that has been struggling for 74 years and whose leaders have been in prison or exile for more than 20 years, the slogan represents a sunny prognosis.

It was "somewhere in Zambia" last June that the ANC held one of the most important gatherings in its long history. About 250 delegates, including some who came clandestinely from inside South Africa, elected a multi-racial 30-member national executive committee. In addition to blacks, it includes for the first time "coloreds" (people of mixed ancestry), Indians and a white man, the longtime activist and communist, Joe Slovo.

The ANC leadership described the conference as "a council of war." The congress believes that apartheid will continue largely intact as long as the South African army remains so powerful. At present, there is no circumstance under which the military, which is easily the strongest on the African continent, could lose officers and men to the other side or begin to disintegrate, as just happened in the Philippines, or earlier, in nations as different as Iran in 1979 or Czarist Russia in 1917.

The South African army is nearly all white and loyal. Most of the soldiers see themselves fighting to preserve their culture and their very presence in Africa. The generals are steely, self-confident and playing an ever-stronger role -- through the powerful State Security Council -- in the government itself. There is not yet anything like the kind of outside economic pressure that could seriously weaken the military, (although the 1977 U.N. arms embargo has prevented it from acquiring some larger weapons, like the latest Mirage warplanes.)

The ANC's own army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, has only about 7,000 members, although more young people are coming out of South Africa eager to join up. But Pretoria's economic and military pressure against the surrounding black nations, demonstrated most recently by the January coup in Lesotho, in which South Africa helped bring to power a more pliable government, means that Umkhonto cannot count on large forward bases.

Partly because of these military problems, the ANC is carrying through its strategy "to make the townships ungovernable and apartheid unworkable." The regime has always relied on some blacks to enforce its authority in the townships, the segregated shadow areas outside the whites-only cities. The numbers of these black minor officials, police constables and security police informers is not large -- they are fewer certainly than the proportion of French who collaborated during World War II -- but they have been critical. A good number of the thousands of people who have been detained under the state of emergency -- and many of the detainees allegedly have been tortured -- were certainly pinpointed by the informer network.

Over the past year, many of the government's black agents have been driven out of the townships, by threats and sometimes by ugly and brutal violence. There are indications that the ANC is nearing its goal of a state of affairs in which the regime can only enter the black areas with a large and open show of strength. For instance, the pass laws, under which several hundred thousand black people are arrested every year for failing to produce the documents on demand, will now require major military operations to enforce in the black areas.

In place of the apparatus of apartheid, the ANC is encouraging more of the community groups that have already proliferated across South Africa. These organizations, some 600 of which form the United Democratic Front, are not openly pro-ANC, but many of their members are sympathetic to the outlawed organization. In some areas, they are already exercising de facto political control, carrying out effective mass boycotts of schools and of some white-owned businesses -- which has been an effective pressure tactic. The groups are also apparently starting to try to discipline the tsotsis (a slang term for street criminals, derived from the expression "zoot-suit") and provocateurs who have used the uprisings for their own purposes.

The ANC hopes that the black areas could then start to function as revolutionary bases inside the country, in which Umkhonto guerrillas could move more or less openly. But the ANC faces another problem: The rising tide of resistance has outrun the organization's ability to smuggle weapons into South Africa. It has therefore called for organized bands to steal weapons from police and soldiers, break into gunshops and fashion homemade gasoline bombs. In late January, striking mineworkers southwest of Johannesburg opened fire with captured weapons and killed two white policemen.

The ANC also warns it will take less care in its attacks to avoid civilian casualties. ANC officials contend that they have been restrained thus far and point to the imbalance between black and white victims. They note that during the past 18 months of rising violence, more than 1,100 blacks have been killed -- but only two dozen whites.

The organization insists, however, that it is not starting an indiscriminate campaign against white people. "We are not terrorists," said Pallo Jordan, a member of the national executive. "If we had wanted to carry out terrorism, all the people who sweep out the whites-only cinemas and restaurants are black. They could have put bombs in those places for us long ago."

So far, the armed attacks have not seriously threatened apartheid. A more powerful force at present is the independent union movement, which has come from nowhere in the past ten years. Last November, a thousand delegates from 36 different unions united in a huge new federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions. COSATU represents more than half a million workers, including crucial sectors like mining and auto manufacturing.

Until now, many of the unions have concentrated on building their support on the factory floors rather than emphasizing political issues. But they now apparently feel strong enough to challenge the regime. COSATU's first president, Elijah Barayi, gave a fiery inaugural speech in which he endorsed sanctions (thus breaking the law) and threatened a campaign of civil disobedience unless the pass laws were abolished within six months.

By no means is COSATU purely an ANC stand-in, (although Barayi and some others were members when the congress was still legal). But there is much in common. And the labor movement's potential strength was already foreshadowed late in 1984, when 300,000 workers brought the Johannesburg area to a two-day standstill.

In the coming years, one of the ANC's biggest problems will be how much it is able to influence the day-to-day course of events inside South Africa. Detractors, including some blacks, the best known of whom is Chief Gatsha Buthelezi of the Natal region, have dismissed the Congress as an isolated exile grouping. In the past year or so, the popularity of the ANC and its imprisoned leader, Nelson Mandela, have been evident, even in Buthelezi's home area. There are also large numbers of people inside the country who are secretly ANC members and who are in contact with the organization outside.

The ANC is not behind every episode of the unrest. Indeed, congress officials worry that bands of criminals, exploiting the unsettled situation, could flourish in "uncontrollable" townships. Soweto already has the highest crime rate in the world, more than twice that of Chicago or New York, and there have already been reports that the tsotsis are taking advantage of the chaos to extort, intimidate and murder.

The ANC will also be hard-pressed to maintain close control over all the guerrillas in its army. South Africa's up-to-date, computerized police state weakens the chain of command. Despite the organization's intent, there will certainly be some attacks that could be described as "terrorist" -- and the ANC will have to decide how to respond.

Another challenge for the congress will be to promote the kind of internal democracy that will make its goal of a "non-racial, democratic South Africa" more likely. The ANC is closely allied with the multi-racial Communist Party, but it also includes people who, according to one ANC official, "would under normal circumstances fit quite comfortably into the U.S. Republican party." Members from across the ANC spectrum will all be affected by the kind of lengthy, clandestine and brutal conflict that is already underway. It will be difficult to resist the tendency toward concentration of power, authoritarianism and intolerance that have plagued revolutionary movements in other places, at other times.

This gloomy scenario is not inevitable. The alternative is increased international pressure that helps end apartheid short of all-out war. South Africa's vulnerability to outside pressure was convincingly demonstrated last August, when it could not pay frightened Western banks on time. The very limited economic sanctions in effect so far have had mainly intangible effects, boosting morale among blacks and introducing a new note of hesitancy into white confidence. The world pressure, which is already high even though the war for southern Africa is still in an early stage, could eventually force the supporters of apartheid into genuine negotiations.

For me, after more than seven years of involvement with the struggle for southern Africa, the most encouraging fact is that the ANC has not succumbed to its own form of racism. I can offer one personal example. I met several months ago in Lusaka with John Nkadimeng, the black general secretary of SACTU, the ANC's trade union wing. It was in some ways a sad reunion, because his 27-year-old son, Rogers, was assassinated last year in Gaborone, Bostwana, by what his father believes were agents of the South African security police.

I asked John whether the death of his son had hardened his attitude toward white South Africans. "No," he said immediately. "It is very bitter to lose a child. But these government people who do these things are blindfolded; they are corrupted. It's not color; it's how they are corrupted." He raised his voice, and cut through the air with his hands. "Besides, there are white colleagues in our movement who have been with us. Some even laid down their lives." He was shaking his head. "I've got no business to hate them."

That there would be growing resistance to apartheid was probably inevitable. But there was certainly no guarantee that the resistance would take a non-racial form. In the past, there have been, perhaps understandably, political tendencies among black South Africans that could have evolved into a messianic, fanatical crusade to push the whites into the sea, an analogue to Iran under the theocrats. Over the years, the ANC has rejected that kind of counter-racism. White South Africans who still support apartheid may not realize it yet, but they have been very lucky.