The defiance of Hendrik Van den Bergh, once deemed South Africa's second most powerful man, amid allegations of his role in a government scandal has threatened the unity of the ruling National Party and opened the party to criticism from its own members.

The former head of the nation's security forces was named in an official report, along with former information minister Cornelius Mulder and information secretary Eschel Rhoodie, as mastermind of 138 secret projects for which government funds allegedly were misappropriated.

Van den Bergh, 64, says he is being made a scapegoat and has labeled the report "a big farce" and a "character assassination" and challenged the government investigators to make public his entire testimony.

Meanwhile, a committee made up of 50 leading businessmen, lawyers and academics, some of them members of the ruling party, has joined public criticism of the government's handling of the scandal.

The Committee for Equality Before the Law said it gathered 12,000 signatures on a petition to pressure the government into prosecuting Van den Bergh for his criticism of the report, which would let him have his say in court.

Van den Bergh was one of the petition's first signers.

The December report ironically has pitted the government of Prime Minister Pieter Botha against a man who in many ways symbolizes the nation's leadership: fervently anti-Communist, an industrious farmer, policeman and a senior member of the powerful secret society of Afrikaner men, the Broederbond.

Now, as far as Van den Bergh is concerned, he just wants to clear his name.

Many of the 138 projects warned by the investigators remain secret. The few made public disclosed how the Information Department recruited businessmen, at home and abroad, to act as front owners of publications that would print material favorable to South Africa and its policy of apartheid, or racial separation. The report said large amounts of government funds were misappropriated and wasted.

The report offered the South African public a rare picture of Van den Bergh, who up to then was the reclusive head of the secrecy-shrouded Bureau for State Security (BOSS), South Africa's counterpart to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The probers accused Van den Bergh of acting as the "power behind the throne," misusing his friendship with former prime minister John Vorster and abusing the extensive, unbridled powers he held as chief of BOSS.

The report said Van den Bergh boasted of his network of "agents" whom he described "in sinister terms." The extent of his power was underscored when a former aide to Van den Bergh burst into tears as he gave testimony. He said he feared the intelligence chief would "crush" him if he opposed him.

"Few people in this land know the powers Van den Bergh possesses," the aide told government investigators.

While Mulder resigned from public office in disgrace and Rhoodie has spent the last two months eluding the press and police abroad, Van den Bergh has struck back with a vengeance.

Calling reporters to his modest Pretoria home he showed off a chrome-plated Soviet-made AK47 rifle, which he called the symbol of all he has spent his life fighting, and, challenged the investigators to release his testimony.

But the probe team -- on the orders of "higher authority," according to its chairman -- refused to do so.

The attorney general then declined to prosecute Van den Bergh for his derogatory remarks about the report, which constituted a legal offense. The justice official explained that prosecuting the former national security chief might bring out information harmful to national security.

These actions have been interpreted as attempts to prevent Van den Bergh from telling his side of the story and have fueled charges in the press, including progovernment papers, and by opposition politicians that a cover-up is in progress.

Clearly the government does not want any holes poked in its December report, which concluded that Prime Minister Botha, a long time rival of Van den Bergh, and Vorster, whose friendship with Van den Bergh reportedly has ended, were blameless in the scandal.

Many observers suspect that Van den Bergh's unedited testimony laid more responsibility on Vorster than the report acknowledges. In his press conference after the report's release, Van den Bergh stated, "all [my] power was subject to the approval of Mr. Vorster."

The government also apparently fears what the unpredictable Van den Bergh would reveal about other secret projects.

Meanwhile, his bravado is making it increasingly difficult for the government to ignore his provocations. This week he announced that he would not testify before the government team still investigating aspects of the scandal if they asked him to because they had called him a liar.