While the world waits to see whether South Africa can bring itself to bury apartheid and free its oppressed black majority, one Washington-based organization is betting that it will -- and helping to prepare for the day.

Africare is in the second year of a program designed to provide practical professional experience for black South Africans (and Namibians) educated in the United States. The idea is to hasten the career progress of the graduates, so that they can assume leadership roles in the prospective new order. The method is to place the newly graduated professionals in internships, to supplement their academic learning with on-the-job experience.

Of the 70 graduates placed last year, 17 have returned home and are now working in law offices, engineering firms, accounting offices and clinics. A few are doing post-graduate work at South African universities. In virtually every case, says Africare's executive director, C. Payne Lucas, their career prospects -- and leadership potential -- have been enhanced by their American internships.

Indeed, says Lois Hobson, who runs the South Africa Career Development Internship program, the undertaking has become so attractive to the students that there is now a shortage of firms in which to place them. She is now looking for corporations and not-for-profit institutions to join the effort.

The internship program is the brainchild of the late Bishop John Walker, dean of Washington Cathedral, whose fear it was that freedom would find South African blacks unprepared for the leadership roles their new status would demand.

While other activists were demonstrating at the South African Embassy here, or building shantytowns on college campuses or demanding that American corporations and universities purge their portfolios of stock of companies doing business in South Africa -- all in an effort to hasten the collapse of apartheid -- Walker was asking: What then?

Walker, who was among those arrested at the embassy during the early days of the Free South Africa movement led by TransAfrica, later dismayed the mainstream activists by organizing a campaign to encourage U.S.-based companies in South Africa to provide accelerated training for their black employees rather than merely quit the country.

His was a more pragmatic approach -- an effort to lay the groundwork for a peaceful transition to majority rule. It was this pragmatism that led him to enlist Africare, of which he was chairman, to undertake the internship program.

"Most American-educated southern Africans used to return home with their diplomas, but without practical experience, and they were routinely frustrated in their efforts to find work at the professional level," Hobson said. "The firms there were willing to hire them if they had the experience, but they didn't want to give them that experience."

The internship program -- together with heightened expectations of a peaceful end to apartheid -- is changing that, she said.

"The success and excitement of the first year has generated a booming interest among the students here as well as among blacks in southern Africa," she said in a recent interview. "There has been a tremendous influx of applications for the program. In fact, the interest has mushroomed more quickly than our ability to place them. This is our dilemma. The excitement and enthusiasm for the program would be even greater if there were more opportunities available in the private sector."

The program, funded by grants from IBM, Texaco and the Ford Foundation, provides six-month internships in both commercial and non-profit firms. The for-profit firms are expected to pay the interns' stipends; Africare supplements the salaries for the non-profit institutions.

Hobson said the program does not compete with the efforts of black Americans to land jobs in their areas of training, since the Americans are interested in permanent employment. "Participation is limited to those southern Africans who have earned at least a bachelor's degree -- preferably a master's -- and who need the practical experience to get their careers started back home," she said. Most of the degrees are in business administration, banking and finance, science, engineering, public administration, social work and law.

"We don't pretend that we are solving all the problems that the end of apartheid will introduce," Hobson said. "But there's no doubt that the program is helping in important ways. Practical training opportunities are virtually nonexistent in South Africa and Namibia, and without practical exposure, the students miss the enhancement and validation of their U.S.-based academic preparation."

The internship program is based on the assumption that the process already underway in South Africa will lead to the demise of apartheid. Lucas and Hobson are working to provide a positive answer to Bishop Walker's insistent question: What then?