ROME -- Some months ago, Jerry Essan Masslo peered into his future and saw it was bleak. "There's no hope for me here in Italy," said the 29-year-old South African refugee in an interview last winter that now seems sadly prophetic. "No black, or South African, can forget what racism is. I see it happening here in Italy, and I can't accept it." Now Masslo is dead, slain for a fistful of hard-earned dollars by thugs in the tomato fields of southern Italy, a fertile land where poverty, desperation and crime flourish among the vines. Whether the motive for his killing was racial is unclear, although a flyer reading "Permanent open season on Negroes" was found near the scene of the crime. In death, Masslo has become the symbol of all that has soured the "Italian dream" for many Third World immigrants. His slaying called new attention to the festering issue of mushrooming immigration in a country known for its lax entry policies as the "soft underbelly of Europe" and to the corresponding increase in racial outbursts. Other recent racial incidents -- an Ethiopian woman forced to give up her seat on a Rome bus amid the insults of fellow passengers; a black man forced out of a third-floor window in Naples by a gang of young men who shouted racial epithets and threatened to kill him -- have stirred Italian sensibilities. But none have drawn as much public attention and caused so much soul searching as Masslo's death a week ago. Instead of becoming just another statistic, Masslo became the object of front-page editorials, and a special appeal for justice by Italian President Francesco Cossiga. His funeral on Monday in Villa Literno, the town where he died 20 miles from Naples, drew hundreds of mourners, including Deputy Prime Minister Claudio Martelli, and was broadcast live on national television. Masslo, a political opponent of South Africa's apartheid system of racial separation, arrived in Italy on March 2, 1988, having bribed his way aboard a plane by selling his gold watch and bracelet. After hearing how he lost his father and 7-year-old son in battles against South African police, United Nations authorities granted him political refugee status. Those who knew him recount that Masslo's first experiences in Italy were happy. Accepted into the Sant-Egidio community for refugees, he made friends quickly, studied Italian and was delighted by such seemingly ordinary triumphs as sitting next to whites in restaurants. The "Italian dream" soon turned bitter, however. As a political refugee, Masslo wasn't able to work legally, so he turned -- as do 90 percent of Third World immigrants here -- to illegal labor, and there his troubles began. Masslo headed to what immigrants sarcastically call "Eldorado Rosso" (Red Paradise), the tomato fields where long hours of backbreaking labor can bring a migrant $30 to $40 a day if he is lucky. Easy prey for organized or common crime, the workers are reluctant to turn to authorities for fear they will be expelled from the country. Racial tensions reportedly run high in poor areas like Villa Literno, where white laborers sometimes feel they are fighting for the same small slice of the pie. In an interview last winter with Massimo Ghirelli, a journalist who presents a special program on state-run television for immigrants called "Nonsolonero" (Not Just Black), Masslo confessed his disillusionment. "My real problem is that I'd hoped not to experience in Italy what I experienced in South Africa, but it's happening. . . . I've seen with my own eyes things that shouldn't be happening here in Italy," he said. He added that he would try to return to South Africa if he could because "things aren't working out here." Masslo was one of an estimated million to 1.3 million foreigners now living in Italy, compared with 300,000 just three years ago. Only 10 percent of immigrants are legally registered, and authorities say clandestine migration to Italy, mostly from Africa, is growing at a rate of 50,000 a year. According to a recent government study, Italy will host 5 million immigrants -- roughly 10 percent of the total population -- by the end of the century. The scenario has stirred a delicate and emotional debate on possible quotas for foreigners. "The fact is that for the first time since ancient Rome, Italy must prepare itself for becoming a multi-racial society," said Foreign Minister Gianni de Michelis. "It may be 20 or 30 years in coming, but we won't escape it. We must confront the issue of quotas, and I intend to do so as soon as possible within the European Community." Amid the furor that has followed Jerry Masslo's death, some observers have cited the irony of intolerance in a country that until recently was a net exporter of Italians in search of work. Few who saw the tragicomic 1973 film "Bread and Chocolate" can forget the face of actor Nino Manfredi, playing a penniless Italian migrant worker in Switzerland, peering out mournfully from the dirty chicken coop he called home. Now, the camera focuses on the squalid campsite without plumbing or roof where Masslo and his companions were attacked with guns, robbed of their savings and left bleeding in the dirt. "Many times in the past we Italians found ourselves forced to emigrate abroad in search of better opportunities," said a television commentator as he watched Masslo's funeral today. "Now these Africans find themselves in a similar position, here in Italy. . . . Let us hope that the death of Masslo serves to remind us of these matters."