On a Saturday afternoon about a year ago, as Markus Kateka walked back to his home on the farm of Jacobus Louw in the hilly cattle-raising region of Grootfontein, he encountered men dressed in camouflaged uniforms and carrying rifles. It was a meeting with dire consequences for Kateka and for the Louws, whose farm soon was assaulted.

The 40-year-old farmhand is the first person condemned to death for assisting black insurgents of the South West African Peoples' Organization, who have been fighting South African troops here for almost 16 years. He is currently awaiting judgement on his appeal of the sentence heard May 7 in South Africa's highest appellate court.

South Africa rules Namibia, or South West Africa, under a mandate canceled by the United States.

The case of Kateka and fellow farm laborer Hendrik Kariseb, who received a 10-year jail sentence, offers a rare glimpse of how peasants are drawn into this bush war and also of the whites' fear that their own employes will side against them.

According to the record of the men's trial in Windhoek supreme court last September, Kateka was the first farmworker to meet the seven to nine insurgents as he strolled back from a visit to a nearby farm. That night, after the other farmhands and their families were asleep, he brought two guerrillas into the compound and fed them porridge and milk. They put their rifles and knapsacks on his roof and stayed the night.

The next morning, they left but reappeared and ushered all the farmworkers into the bush, where they met their armed comrades. While two guarded the group of about 50 people, the others took Kateka and Kariseb about 70 paces away.

In testimony for the state, the defendants' co-workers said the insurgents asked Kateka to draw the layout of the Louw house on the ground and elicited information from the two men about where the rooms were.

After noon, the insurgents took Kariseb and Kateka with them to the farmstead. According to the other farmworkers, Kariseb showed where the kitchen windows were and told the riflemen to fire at them because the Louw family would be having lunch. Kariseb denied this allegation in his testimony but of 108 shots fired into the house, 50 were aimed at the windows.

As it turned out, Louw, his wife, daughter and grandchild were all having naps in their bedrooms at the time of the attack. They fired back and no one was injured.

The court found that after the shooting, Kateka and Kariseb thought the Louw family was dead and warned the other workers not to report the incident because the guerrillas would come back and kill them.

The two men denied this. Kateka said he had not warned the Louws of the imminent attack or the guerrillas' presence on the farm because they told him that if he did, they would see him and hear him. He said he thought they had apparatus for that.

Kariseb, 45, who worked for Louw for 25 years and was his senior farmhand, is even less sophisticated. He told his attorney he did not know what SWAPO was and called the armed men "bandits."

Namibian Judge Johan Strydom convicted the men on Oct. 13 of "terrorist activities." He said SWAPO's Marxist ideology did not appeal to them because they were illiterate, but "The punishment must . . . serve to draw the farmworker's attention to their particular duties in the farming setup in the northern areas, not to collaborate with terrorists and to report terrorists to their employers as far as possible.

"It is obvious that it is the farmer's right to expect of his workers not to collaborate with terrorists. If that is not the case, farming would simply not be possible," he said.

In previous cases, several people have received sentences ranging from five to eight years for feeding, transporting or hiding SWAPO insurgents. None of them, however was convicted of participating in an attack on whites. No black in South Africa has ever been given the death sentence for assisting insurgents.

Pio Teek, the defendant's lawyer, is the first black attorney in Namibia. In a recent interview he said that the state witnesses' testimony was contradictory on many points and some of them did not speak the language used by the insurgents. He questions how they could hear what Kariseb and Kateka said from 70 paces away. But his main argument is that the two men participated under duress and out of fear.

The riflemen were never caught, Teek said.