The 25,000 people who live in this dry and sparsely populated region of central Namibia, on a high plateau between the Namib and Kalahari deserts, take a special pride in being called Bastards.

Normally people of mixed race are called Coloreds in South Africa and in this adjacent former German colony that Pretoria has administered since World War II.

But to call a mixed-race man from Rehoboth a Colored is to insult him. He insists on being called a Baster, the Afrikaans word for bastard.

"It does not mean the same to us as it does to other people," explains their elected leader, Hans Diergaard.

"We take a particular pride in the word. It emphasizes that we are different."

Coloreds, Diergaard explained in an interview, are mostly the result of early relationships between white Afrikaners in South Africa and their Malayan and Javanese slaves.

"There are no slaves in our background," he said with a hint of pride.

"Our forefathers were immigrants"--meaning Dutch, German and French settlers--"who had relationships with African women."

Rather more distinguishing, though Diergaard mentioned it second, is that for more than a century the Bastards have been the only landowners in the whole area of South African control, and they have enjoyed a kind of self-government in their 5,300-square-mile region.

A fierce pride in this special status has led to an inversion of the Bastards' role in Namibia's long struggle for independence.

Twenty years ago they were in the forefront of that struggle, among the first and most vigorous petitioners to the United Nations for international intervention to end South African control of Namibia, which is also called South-West Africa.

Today they are among the most reluctant of all Namibian communities on the issue of independence, looking to South Africa as perhaps the lesser of two evils as they contemplate the prospect of a future under the socialist-inclined African nationalist movement, the South- West African People's Organization.

"We worry that a SWAPO government would take over our territory and collectivize the land," said Diergaard.

"That would be death for us because our land is our life, our history, our everything."

He said if the current U.S.-led negotiations for Namibian independence were to result in elections for a winner-takes-all government, the Bastards might boycott them.

"If you participate, then you must accept the outcome, and we will never accept anything that takes our land away from us," Diergaard said.

One of the early petitioners to the United Nations was Maans Beukes, a tall, wiry man of 70 with a face like parchment who lives with his wife Elizabeth in a small bungalow in this sprawling little village-capital stretched out along a stony ridge.

The better houses are on top of the ridge, with a dramatic view across 50 miles of bush landscape to a range of jagged blue mountains on the horizon. The poorer houses are along the foot of the ridge.

Diergaard's house is up top with a Mercedes-Benz in the driveway. He has a large farm in the district.

Beukes's bungalow is down below. He runs a small shoe-making business in a back room, teaching young Bastards the traditional craft.

The two do not see eye to eye. Beukes thinks Diergaard typifies a young generation that has lost sight of the true meaning of the Bastards' history, which he sees as a passionate commitment to the ideal of independence without becoming xenophobic or racist.

He says he would vote for SWAPO and has a daughter who works for the exiled organization.

Beukes, who serves as the local historian, has a passionate sense of his people's background and the vaderlike wette, or laws of the fathers, by which they have always lived.

"We were the first people of color who managed to maintain a degree of independence," he said proudly.

He pointed with reverence to an old studio portrait of his parents on the living room wall. His father, stern looking with a bullet-shaped head, was Jacobus Beukes.

"There was a man who would never have gone soft," said Beukes. "Nor will his son."

According to Beukes, the Bastards are the progeny of early European explorers and adventurers who penetrated the South African hinterland.

They settled on unoccupied land along the Orange River in northern Cape Province, founding two communities called De Tuin and Amandelboom.

Nobody can quite pinpoint their location today, but they have acquired a mystical significance in Bastard folklore.

With the discovery of the world's largest diamond deposits around nearby Kimberley in 1867, white diggers came flocking.

In the surge of development that followed the Bastards soon found themselves being pushed off their land.

They decided to pack up and go. Under a leader named Hermanus Van Wyk they trekked north into the arid central plateau of Namibia, with the sandy Namib to the west of them and the stony Kalahari to the east.

For a price of 100 wagons and oxen, 50 horses and 100 pounds sterling--a fortune in those days--Van Wyk bought a large tract of land from Namibia's dominant tribe at the time, the Hereros.

That was 16 years before Bismarck colonized South-West Africa.

Beukes has an old map showing an original area of 17,000 square miles.

He says, however, that first the German colonists and then the South Africans dispossessed them of two-thirds of it.

Now many are wondering whether SWAPO will take away the rest. graphics/1photo: "We were the first people of color who managed to maintain a degree of independence," said Maans Beukes, 70, a shoemaker who serves as the local historian for the Bastards.