Breyten Breytenbach, the Afrikaans language's most distinguished writer, returned from exile to receive South Africa's top literary award tonight and deliver a powerful denunciation of his people for supporting the apartheid system of segregation.

Declaring that "our rottenness is unique," Breytenbach said the South African state is illegal and has forfeited its right to exist because it fails to meet the minimum requirements of justice and tolerance and could be maintained only through repression.

Breytenbach, who spent seven years in prison for plotting against the Afrikaner-led white minority government, returned to his homeland for the first time since his release from prison in 1982 to receive the top award for Afrikaans literature.

Breytenbach was presented with the award at a glittering ceremony in Pretoria's State Theater for a volume of poetry he wrote while in prison.

The audience, which included many members of the ruling Afrikaner establishment, gave Breytenbach a standing ovation when he was named as the winner.

They applauded again when a group of actors read some of his poetry evoking his experience of prison, solitary confinement and interrogation.

But they fell silent when he declared in his acceptance speech that Afrikaners were "criminally responsible" for the destruction of their black compatriots' lives.

Speaking softly, he added that Afrikaner politicians would "in due time be brought to judgment before the bench of history for crimes perpetrated against humanity, for the corruption of civilized values and for the hell-bent destruction of a country."

Breytenbach said he had "searched his heart" before agreeing to return to South Africa for the award. He decided to return because he said he was "irrevocably tied to Africa and committed to the liberation struggle in this country."

He announced that he would donate part of his $7,500 prize money to the defense of political prisoners.

Appealing to "this whitish and bloody-minded tribe" to turn away from apartheid before it unleashed a race war that would "sweep like an unquenchable fire wind through the subcontinent," Breytenbach warned that if they did not do so then Afrikaners would go "from murder to self-destruction."

The granting of the award to Breytenbach reflects the love-hate relationship that Afrikaners have long had with the poet, who for years has used their language to lambaste them for racism and oppression.

He was long ago regarded as a renegade and outcast because he married a "nonwhite" Vietnamese princess, Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien, and lived in exile in Paris, where he worked as an artist.

Since his imprisonment he has declared that he no longer regards himself as an Afrikaner and said that because of its association with oppression he believes Afrikaans has no future "except as a language for use on tombstones."

Nevertheless, Afrikaners still revere Breytenbach's work and recognize him as the most important writer in the language they regard as central to their identity. Symbolically, he carries on the tradition begun by the literary pioneers who evolved Afrikaans from the Dutch spoken by the first white settlers in South Africa.

Breytenbach was tried, convicted and imprisoned in 1975 after an attempt to launch an antiapartheid guerrilla movement. He was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment, but was released after seven years with a group of 27 political prisoners. He was put on a plane for Paris.

Several of Breytenbach's volumes of poetry have been translated into English and Dutch. He also has written a book in English on his experiences in prison, "True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist."