Manhattan's skyline backs up the band and Liberty gazes down on the clientele in the most popular speak-easy in "Egoli" (City of Gold), as blacks call Johannesburg.

Here, just three blocks away from one of the biggest police stations in the country, the liquor is contraband and the dancing is illegal. But business is booming in Club New York City, one of the first multiracial disconightclubs in this strictly segregated nation.

Liquor licenses are not given to clubs that serve more than one race and multiracial dancing has been taboo for years, proscribed by the zoning laws that checker the country into black, white, colored (mixed race) and Indian areas to prevent racial mixing. Architects of government policy say this is done to avoid racial friction.

Making all these complex laws is not easy and getting around them is even harder. Yet some entrepreneurs have had success by simply ignoring them.

Club New York City opened last August and when it became apparent that the government and police were blinking an eye, and that money was being made, other clubs soon followed. The more popular ones sport American names and motifs: huge dice and "one-armed bandits" decorate the walls at the "Las Vagas," where a sign warns customers upon entering: "No weapons allowed in this club."

"San Francisco" is a few blocks away, and disco USA sits in the shadow of the office building from which white bureaucrats administer the all-black township of Soweto. A styfoam Statue of Liberty stands in the middle of Disco USA and the names of the 50 states are scribbled on the walls.

The American names are not accidents. Club owners are capitalizing on an axiom of the Johannesburg market - especially when aiming at black consumers - "If you say it's American you can charge any price you like," in the words of the white club owner.

It's because America never colonized," said Ray Mashigo, black manager of Club New York City. "It was neutral so things American are neutral. We don't have too much to hammer America with."

Only Club New York City, out of about six multiracial clubs, has black owners and a black manager.

Neither club operators nor government officials will say at what level the decision was made to allow the clubs to exist or why. Desegregation in other areas, such as theaters, hotels, churches and restaurants, is closely regulated by the permit system, under which establishments must apply for permission to serce all races. The clubs have not applied for this permit since none of them even have liquor licenses in the first place.

The official comment from the Department of Community Development, which enforces the racially based zoning laws, is "no comment."

Brig. J.F. Engelbrecht of the Johannesburg police force said, "The most we can do is confiscate their liquor and charge them with illegally selling it. Then they pay a guilty plea fine and can apply to a magistrate to get the liquor back."

Engelbrecht professes not to see anything unusual in the multiracial night clubs. "Don't you have them in the United States?" he asks a visitor.

The police chief said he does not know why they have mushroomed within the last year. "Why did Hula-Hoops start when they did?" he asks with a shrug of his shoulders.

Some observers think there is a strategy in the official laxity. "Johannesburg is a trial city," said one.

The clubs appear to have a tacit understanding with police that if they avoid fights and drugs, then the illegal dancing and drinking will be overlooked. Each club has security guards at entrances and at Las Vegas all customers are frisked with a microwave beeper to detect hidden weapons.

In this country where social contacts between races has largely been restricted to the workplace, the novelty of the clubs - as well as the good live music - attracts large crowds of all races. For the most part, the only friction from all this mixing is body against body on the crowded dance floor.

Dancing on Sunday is strictly prohibited by law, however, and despite their flagrant vilations of the liquor and racial segregation laws, the club owners strictly enforce this no dancing rule.

Instead, imaginative floor shows are substituted with acts that include such talents as an African who whistles songs for 20 minutes; a Zulu dance group; an Indian singer who does "Hang Down You Head Tom Dooley" in four different accents (English, Indian, African and Afrikaans); a black man who does a good imitation of Lou Rawls and a white man who dances in nothing but tight-fitting underwear.

The clubs have come under attack from the more radically oriented black youth in urban areas who seek to promote a drive to avoid social contact with whites.

They also feel, as one put it, that the clubs divert attention from more serious problems of the black population and promote drinking and black prostitution. The clubs do make it easier for white men to pick up black prostitutes, but in the better run clubs management tries to curb soliciting.

"We decided right from the start this won't be a club offering black women for white men; we are not Swaziland," Mashigo said, referring to the independent black state encircled by South Africa where white men, barred from interracial sex in their own country, travel on weekends to meet black prostitutes.

The response of the whites who frequent the clubs is enthusiastic. "It's the kind of place that would make Connie Mulder (minister of black affairs) want to dance with Helen Suzman (outspoken opposition party critic of the government)," one non-south African clubgoer said.

"They [the Clubs] had to come," say many whites.

The whites, mainly men on their own, or young couples or tourists, frequently also include Afrikaners, the whites of Dutch descent who form the backbone of support for the government's segregation system.

"One night two officials of the Foreign Ministry came in and said they had enjoyed it very much," one club owner reported.

In fact, he went on, "We are interested in attracting many more Afrikaners, especially the young ones. If we could get them to come in significant numbers and they could see how we get along, then they would see they have nothing to fear when blacks get into power," he explained.

"But we would like them to come in small groups so they learn to feel outnumbered," he said.

Although their superiors have told them not to attend the multiracial clubs, many policemen who are predominantly Afrikaners, pop in for drinks when off duty, according to club managers.

Mashigo remembers one traffic policeman in particular who came to the club and, under house rules, has to turn over his gun to the manager.

"The idea of surrendering his gun to a black man made him sick, and the idea that the black man was also a manager made him ever sicker," he said. "He wanted to know my name and when I said 'Mashigo' he wanted to know my first name, I told him it was to difficult for him to pronnounce.

"But when I asked him his name, he said it was 'Baas' [boss] Steenkamp.

However, when he came back at the end of the night, he attitude had changed and he even told me that if ever I had any problems with traffic tickets in Roodepoort [a white suburb of Johannesburg], to let him know, though I don't know when I'll ever be in Roodepoort."