BOTSHABELO, SOUTH AFRICA -- John Moleko walks in the darkness. There are no street lights, only the moon and the stars. Dirt and rubbish crunch beneath his footsteps. Frail, hungry dogs bark as he passes, his hands shoved in his pockets, a knit cap protecting his head from the chill of an Orange Free State winter morning.

Moleko, 42, has left his wife, Ellen, at home in their flimsy two-room zinc shack, snug beneath a mound of blankets in the bed next to the kitchen table, the kerosene-powered refrigerator and the wood stove. Patrick, Angelina, Patience and Goodenough, the couple's children, sleep in the other room.

This day will be like any other for Ellen, a 34-year-old with little primary education. She will watch after the children, cook the porridge-like mielie meal that is the staple of the black South African diet, sell bottled beer and carry water atop her head from the tap on the road, passing the pile of 365 large bricks the Molekos have amassed in their yard for the real home they hope to build someday.

It is 4:30 a.m., for millions of black South Africans the start of a new day. John Moleko joins other commuters who queue quietly at the spot on the road where the Interstate bus will pick them up for the run out of the Third World and into the First -- from this ramshackle settlement of discarded people, dirt roads, candle-lit shacks and outdoor toilets, to Bloemfontein, a white city of paved roads, street lights, manicured lawns and thriving businesses 45 minutes away. There, Moleko fits bulbs into light fixtures for the TransNet railway line, earning 600 rand (about $240) a month.

Moleko's daily bus ride from the black world to the white one is apartheid at its most basic -- the forced separation of black from white in a society that has prized black labor, not black neighbors; denied blacks the right to vote; herded them into human reserves called townships, often squalid for lack of basic infrastructure; created for them an intentionally inferior education; banned them from many places, often jailed them, sometimes killed them; divided them from one another in tribal "homelands."

Moleko's life, and those of millions of other black South Africans, are at the center of "the struggle," as the battle against apartheid is called here.

For nine weeks this spring, this reporter traveled South Africa and lived in its black townships, where some people are beating away at the doors of apartheid while others wait passively but pray mightily for its end. Those people are the subject of this four-part series: the people for whom the struggle is daily life.

A rolling dust cloud and a roaring engine signal the arrival of Moleko's bus. There is dust inside, too, so much dust that it chokes the passengers, who pull rags from their bags and pockets to wipe down their seats. "Every time, every time," says Tatse Baza, 49, a machine inspector, shaking his head and swiping at the dust.

Agostine Jonas, a domestic worker for a white family in town, disappears behind a towel she drapes over her head. Agnes Tshehle shoves through the aisles, squeezing past people packed in like sardines, hawking 5-cent candies. Florence Jamda, another domestic, pulls yarn from a plastic Kentucky Fried Chicken bag and knits to pass the time.

Sharing a seat with Moleko is Simon Belisi, 64. So worn and patched are his shoes they would be unrecognizable if not on his feet. Belisi, a small man and father of 12 who for about $40 a month "carries and cleans" for a building contractor, clutches a red vinyl bag to his lap. Inside is his lunch -- bread and tea.

Belisi lurches to and fro, almost out of his seat, laughing at someone's joke that the reckless driver is trying to kill them. The laughter subsides. Some people doze. Others stare blankly. They crash onward through the darkness, to the city where they scrub white floors, build white homes, stock white shelves and clean white streets, but where, by law, they are not allowed to rent or own or live, and where their children cannot attend school.

There are signs, albeit early ones, that under President Frederik W. de Klerk the country is attempting to change, to break from its past, to give the roughly 30 million black South Africans a voice and a vote in a country run by about 5 million whites.

The president's initiatives -- the legalization of anti-apartheid groups, the freeing of their imprisoned leaders, the beginnings of talks on a new constitution -- have prompted black leaders such as African National Congress Deputy President Nelson Mandela, who was freed from prison in February after nearly 27 years, and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, to praise de Klerk as a man of integrity.

But these bold moves carry with them both blessings and curses. The dawning of a "new South Africa," as de Klerk has called his vision, is in some ways making this land of stunning sunsets and spectacular mountains an even more dangerous place to live.

Right-wing whites who cling to their vision of separate racial development are threatening to fight. Vigilante groups are on the prowl. Police continue to harass, arrest and kill, setting off explosions of township violence in which blacks, mostly youth, fight back with burning barricades, firebombs and stones.

Many blacks also are fighting one another, killing sometimes for revenge or over such issues as taxi routes, muhti (witchcraft) and politics. There is ideological warfare being waged among a host of anti-apartheid groups, including the ANC-United Democratic Front alliance, the Pan Africanist Congress and the Zulu-based Inkatha Movement.

Many of the people fighting under the banners of these groups are youths. Some have turned their backs on school, saying there should be "liberation before education." Others, however, stick closely to the principle of nonviolence and are fighting apartheid through peaceful methods, within civic associations, student groups and street committees.

There is indeed much upheaval in the land. But there is also hope. 'It's Difficult to Forget'

On the small black-and-white television set rigged by jumper cables to a car battery, the picture is grainy. The horizontal line won't stop rolling. The sound fades in and out. But the set is operating just enough for the young men gathered in a neighbor's house with no electricity in tiny Zolani township in Cape Province to see Mandela and de Klerk together.

Mandela is talking about their future, and it is beginning to look much brighter. So the youths sitting around the candle-lit table hush each other and listen. The black nationalist leader is saying the May talks on removing preconditions for future negotiations on a new constitution were the "realization of a dream" and conducted in the "spirit of letting bygones be bygones."

Gloria Mhlomo, 27, a teacher who has joined the TV watchers, asks Wenzi Nel, 30, a school colleague, what the expression means. Nel tells her, and Mhlomo says: "Yes, we can forgive them. But it's difficult to forget what they've done to us."

It starts at birth, when they are classified by race according to the guidelines set out by the Population Registration Act of 1950; when, without even knowing it, black South Africans enter an existence that, like a tiny box, will squeeze them their whole lives.

"Black means a person who is, or is generally accepted as, a member of any aboriginal race or tribe of Africa."

"Colored person means a person who is not a white person or a black."

"White person means a person who, a) in appearance obviously is a white person and who is not generally accepted as a Colored person; or b) is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously not a white person."

De Klerk has said the Population Registration Act will be the last apartheid law to be scrapped, so until the "new South Africa" arrives, this law will continue to determine the quality of each South African's life until death.

For the average black child today, it still means birth in an overcrowded hospital and care at an under-equipped clinic funded by a system that, according to South African government statistics, spends $380 million on the health of its 5 million whites and $256 million on health care for what the government says are 21 million to 23 million blacks, not counting the roughly 8 million blacks in the homelands. Seventy percent of whites have medical insurance, mostly through their jobs, compared to only 4 percent of blacks.

The child will be raised on mielie meal, or cornmeal, and meat that often smells and tastes spoiled.

The child will live in a township because the Black Urban Areas Act of 1923 and the Group Areas Act of 1950 allocate specific areas to specific racial groups. The child's parents are not likely to own the land on which they live in that township because it was not until 1986 that land ownership in townships was allowed. The child will grow up in a matchbox house of three or four rooms, for which the parents will pay rent to the town council and fees for services such as electricity (if it exists), water (whether in private taps indoors or public ones on the road) and removal of rubbish that never seems to get removed. There will be virtually no recreational facilities in the township, except a soccer stadium. No pools, no libraries, no parks.

Until parliament repeals the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953, as it is expected to do soon, that child may not be able to swim in a white pool, go to a white library, sit on a white park bench or use a white public toilet.

At school in the township, there will be shortages of books, crowded classrooms, dilapidated buildings, an inferior education curriculum designed, as former prime minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd put it, to "not create wrong expectations on the part of the native." Per capita spending on black education in 1988 was $238, compared to $602 for mixed-race Coloreds, $805 for Indians and $1,088 for whites, government statistics show.

Unless things change, the young black of today will reach adulthood having no say, no vote, in the affairs of the nation. Blacks can only vote for candidates running for posts as black township councilors. The town councils, created by apartheid, do not make policy. They simply implement and administer it.

When that black adult seeks a job, he can look forward to earning about $223 a month in construction compared to $1,067 for whites; $432 in finance compared to $938 for whites; $314 in manufacturing compared to $1,060 for whites, according to government statistics. If that black adult is a domestic worker, he or she will earn about $140 a month; if it is farm work, the monthly wage will be about $41 a month.

In old age, after 65, that black person today would be eligible, upon applying for it, for an average government pension of $59 a month, compared to $79 for Coloreds and Indians and $100 for whites.

And upon death, a blacks-only cemetery will be waiting.

The box is tight, always squeezing.

"There isn't a moment when my life is not affected by these things, because everything I do, wherever I go is predetermined by this system," said Pasty Malefo, 45, of Mamelodi. "Where I can live, whatever I think to do with my family I must think of the laws. . . . If I wanted tomorrow to take my family for a picnic I would first have to phone someone to see if blacks are allowed in that area.

"Even in Mamelodi the government determines who lives where. I could not live in Block One, because Block One was meant for Zulus, Block Two for Tswanas," said Malefo, who is of the Sotho tribe.

A Black South African Dream

There are hundreds of black townships in South Africa, and no two are the same.

They are places like Mamelodi, population about 300,000. It hums, it bustles.

Taxis careen through the streets, pulling over, abruptly, to the side of the road to empty passengers, making driving there a nightmare. Women sit beside the roads, some paved, some not, selling fruits and nuts and candies. On school days, children in their uniforms are everywhere, dragging their book bags behind them, walking down the roads and walkways that cut like a grid through tightly packed neighborhoods, where homes have virtually no yards.

Rubbish, huge mounds of it, is a common sight. Children play in it here and there. Such blight is common throughout Africa. But here, in the richest country on the continent, blight is as much a product of apartheid as it is poverty.

Duggie Kutumela sees a mound of rubbish every time he walks out his front door and looks out into the field where delicate white and magenta flowers bloom in the tall grass.

Kutumela, an insurance man, is part of the country's small but growing black middle class, including small businessmen, some lawyers and doctors. Like many in Mamelodi, Kutumela, 56, can afford some comforts. His home has electricity and a kitchen range. He owns a late-model Nissan Sentra, parked outside his four-bedroom house, and a color television set. He also has insurance to cover the cost of his 16-year-old daughter's braces.

But the townships are also places like Botshabelo, where it is not uncommon to see barefoot children with parasites in their hair and rashes on their skin. Drunk men stagger about, night and day, part of an idle pool of the unemployed that social workers here say may be as high as 50 percent.

Some people, many of whom were resettled from farms, grow cabbage, mielies or potatoes on their small plots. Others herd a few sheep or cows. Most, however, shop at the small stores called spazza ("not really") shops, where the prices are high but the locations accessible. In one such shop in Botshabelo, mielie meal, chickens and cooking oil are the top sellers. So are skin-lightening creams. Women use them to make their dark brown skin lighter, to be closer to their ideal of beauty. But instead, they often wind up looking ashen.

Here, the family of Mpho Selemela, 33, a social worker, is greeted two mornings each week by the unspeakably horrific stench of human waste. The odor emanates from a truck bearing pink-uniformed black women wearing yellow rubber gloves who dump into large vats the excrement they collect from the buckets inside the town's thousands of outhouse toilets.

In tiny Zolani, population about 4,000, life is equally hard. The Langeberg canning factory in nearby Ashton, a white town, is the prime source of employment for Zolani's blacks, but the work is mostly seasonal, for three or four months. The rest of the year, people go to farms for daywork, or just scrape by on the monthly pension of an aged mother or father.

Many of the houses are old, made of clay brick or stone, with rotted and leaky zinc roofs, and they are crowded. The home of Elsie Balelo, 68, a former farm worker and now a pensioner, is so crowded that one person sleeps on the couch, two in each of the two beds, two on the living room floor and two in the chicken coop outside.

Gertrude "Bapsy" Magoqoza lives in one room in the four-room house of a friend in Zolani. She has had no place of her own since her release last September from three years in prison on a "public violence" charge for being in a crowd standing around the burning home of a town councilor, she said.

By day, soft light streams through lace curtains over her one window, illuminating the wooden table with a blue wooden bench, the countertop where she cooks mielie meal on a paraffin burner, and the water-stained walls where hang two pictures of a smiling and free Nelson Mandela, the man she calls "our father."

It is there, during candle-lit nights, that Bapsy dreams a black South African dream. Her high, round cheeks fill with her smile, and her downward-slanted Xhosa eyes dance as she tells it:

"I dream my house is big, very pretty. I must have got everything, like beds to sleep and furniture and a TV and electric. And my kitchen must be nice. Kitchen furniture like fridge, stove, ironing board, washing machine. I feel lazy {tired} of washing with my hands.

"And I must have money to put in the bank when I am dead, for the future for my sons. And I must go to church every Sunday. I must not forget because all the things is God's.

"And I must find work. I will be glad. . . . Any work, and good money, not 20 rand and the whites 2,000 rand. And my house must look like the white houses," she says, banging a finger on the table, "because: I WORK HARD."

And, she adds, using a derogatory white South African word for blacks, "They mustn't call us kaffirs."

'Don't Be Afraid of the Gun'

It happened in March in Sebokeng when police fired on marchers protesting high rents, poor infrastructure, police abuse and the town council, leaving about 18 dead from the march and the ensuing unrest. A white police officer who got nervous fired the first shots, a commission of inquiry found.

It happened in April in Rammulotsi outside Viljoenskroon, also in Orange Free State, where they killed five junior high school boys, aged 13 to 16, who left school grounds to watch a protest march in the street. Police said they thought the youths were going to join the march.

It happened in May in Thabong in Orange Free State. Police shot and killed 13 blacks leaving a meeting where a consumer boycott of white businesses in Welkom, the nearby white city, had just been called off. Police said the blacks were throwing stones and marching toward Welkom after being warned to disperse.

In townships all over South Africa, it keeps happening.

For the survivors, bitterness runs deep.

In Sebokeng, as elsewhere, it was bad enough that anyone died. Worse, and the source of a pain as deep as the grief, the people had believed the sweet language of reform coming from the government, that a "new South Africa" was coming, that marches would be allowed to proceed, as de Klerk had said.

The march in Sebokeng, a township of about 500,000 in the Vaal triangle south of Johannesburg, comprised about 15,000 people. "There were many, but they were peaceful," said Lazarus Litau, 51, a Sebokeng resident and a distribution manager for Coca-Cola. Some carried sticks called "knobkerries," as is the tradition.

"Don't be afraid of the gun," the marchers sang as they headed down the main Sebokeng road, past the township administration building, past the only hospital, invoking the name of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, the ANC's armed wing and a symbol of black liberation.

"Mother, sister, brother, father, don't be afraid of the gun," they sang.

Imelda Zililo, 14, a student at States School, was in the crowd. "I was happy because we were singing, jumping," she said later, after being treated for six birdshot wounds in an arm, both thighs, one leg, one heel, one buttock.

She says she will never march again. She is afraid. "My heart was hurt because we were not going there for fighting with the police, but they shoot us for nothing."

The dead that day included: Thebuho Morobe, 30, a local teacher engaged in lobola (bride price) negotiations with the family of his intended. David Kgaile, 36, an electrician's helper who was sole supporter of his mother, wife, two children, three nephews and two nieces. Dumisani Nakani, 20, who hawked coal and wood in the township -- still a boy, his mother said, not even circumcised. Phillip Motaung, 21, who was mentally retarded and learning handcrafts at Motlotlo Primary School, who went to the march because that was where everyone else was going.

"Can one human being do this to another?" said the Rev. Israel Qwelane of the local Anglican Church in Sebokeng. "People are marching peacefully, and you just do this in cold blood? What kind of person can do this thing? When he gets back home, what does he tell his children? 'What have I done today? I have shot so many blacks.' "

After each of these monthly shootings, the townships erupted. Youths pelted police with rocks and bottles. They firebombed bottle stores, service stations and the homes of black police and town councilors. They barricaded roads with burning tires, even whole vehicles. And the police responded in kind.

Moses Tsoeu, 15, ran along the road and stoned police cars in Thabong, "helping my nation" because "police were shooting," he said. A police car chased him and an officer inside "just pointed that rubber-bullet gun and shot it from the car," hitting Moses, a youth who looks younger than his age, above the right eye.

"If they come back, we will fight," yelled a Sebokeng youth in a throng of young men like him, sweaty and bedraggled from a tear-gas-choked day of running battles with police, shaking a pint-sized liquor bottle filled with gasoline.

"It is very impossible for the people to reconcile" with the police, said Richard "Bricks" Mokolo, a Catholic activist in Sebokeng.

"I'm a bit worried about the new South Africa," he said. "What are they going to achieve after the negotiations?"

Maybe then, he said, "we can see what type of South Africa we will have because you cannot name a baby before it's born. . . . Are they going to be able to reconcile Umkhonto we Sizwe and the SADF {the government's South African Defense Force}?

"As Christians we have to ask: Can you reconcile the Devil and God and heaven and earth?"

NEXT: Blacks' perceptions of whites

John Moleko, above left, travels by bus from the ramshackle black settlement of Botshabelo to the thriving white city of Bloemfontein, where blacks are allowed to work but not to live, and where their children may not to attend school.

Family and friends mourn at graveside services, left, for Annah Ncala, one of 13 blacks shot by police after a meeting in May in Thabong township. Police said Ncala and others attacked a policeman's house.