MACHAVIESTAD, SOUTH AFRICA -- A remote and rugged stretch of African bush deep in South Africa's heartland has become the newest testing ground of this country's commitment to rectify the wrongs inflicted over decades by the apartheid system of racial separation.

It was 20 years ago when police and bulldozers came and forced members of the Barolong clan to abandon the tribal lands they had lived on for at least 150 years. More than 140 families were given about $25 each in compensation and hauled off in trucks, recalled 75-year-old tribal elder Ismael Seroalo, while their modest stone houses, four churches and a school were flattened -- all because they were living in an area the government had reserved for whites only.

Now they are back, and they say they intend to stay. This time, said Koos Kwena, one of those forcibly removed 20 years ago, "we will resist. This is our forefathers' land. They will have to kill us."

The local white-minority government in nearby Potchefstroom, which claims title to the land, says they are squatters. Late Wednesday night, police reenacted the grim drama of 1971 by arresting 25 clan members on trespassing charges and tearing down their large, makeshift tent of canvas.

The clash over this small patch of land is taking place along the invisible seam where the old South Africa and the new one are uneasily joined. Under the old racial rules, the Barolong have no claim, no rights and no choice but to reconcile themselves to permanent exile in the nearby tribal "homeland" of Bophuthatswana.

President Frederik W. de Klerk has said he will scrap one of the oldest pillars of apartheid, the Land Act, which prohibits blacks from owning land outside areas set apart for the homelands. The Barolong contend that the new South Africa, if it is to live up to de Klerk's promise of racial justice, must restore their land.

"The government is firmly committed to abolishing apartheid," said Charles Ndabeni of the South African Council of Churches, which has helped the Barolong to return home. "These people were apartheid's victims. It's our argument that they should be allowed to remain here forever and ever."

The Barolong, who claim nearly 15,000 acres here, say their ancestors lived on the land for at least 150 years. They contend that their claim was formally recognized in a contract with Hendrik Potgieter, the legendary Afrikaner pioneer leader, in the late 1830s after the clan helped the white pioneers recover stolen cattle.

The deed vanished long ago, and since 1907, succeeding governments sought to evict the Barolong. The authorities fenced off large parts of the area, levied taxes on animals and houses, impounded cattle and closed the only school. But it was not until the implementation of the grand apartheid scheme of "separate development" that the Barolong were forced out.

At first glance, this harsh, arid landscape seems an unlikely place for a land dispute. But water lies beneath the ground and is accessible by well. The area contains six ancestral graveyards that the Barolong say would be a sin to abandon, and the location offers a stunning view of the stark, rolling countryside.

Seroalo said the clan owned 250 hearty cattle at the time of the expulsion but that most were impounded by the authorities. "Cattle are like gods to us," he said.

Each year since the Barolong were expelled, Potchefstroom has allowed a handful of clan members to return to clean the gravesites, provided they erect only a temporary shelter and stay just five days.

But this year, the authorization letter from acting town clerk Andries Viljoen contained a typographical error: Instead of requiring them to leave on Dec. 26, 1990, the letter gave them until Dec. 26, 1991.

"We knew it was an error, but we felt the holy spirit was playing and this has given us a chance," said Ndabeni.

About 80 members of the clan arrived, erected their tent and made plans to stay the year. When Viljoen arrived on Dec. 27 to order them out, he was shown his own letter. Clan members said he stormed out, and came back Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by three policemen, to deliver a new letter and inform them they would be evicted. That night, they were.

Viljoen could not be reached for comment, but earlier Wednesday he told the South African Press Association that the Barolong knew that the 1991 date was a mistake and were trespassing.

"If they wanted to talk about this land, they should have used the route of negotiating with the {town} council instead of using these confrontational tactics," he was quoted as saying.

But Viljoen's letter granting the Barolong limited access had concluded: "Kindly regard this ruling as final. No further negotiation will be entered into."

Potchefstroom is one of Afrikanerdom's most historic towns, and de Klerk is a graduate of its university. But the local council there, as in many white towns in the Transvaal province, is controlled by the right-wing opposition Conservative Party, which bitterly opposes de Klerk's political reforms.

A local magistrate ordered the clan members released on bail of about $60 each, but the money arrived after hours and the 23 adults among those arrested spent a second night in jail Thursday night.

The magistrate also ordered the clan members and the town council to reopen negotiations to resolve the dispute. But it was unclear whether the town would change its stance, or whether de Klerk's government would seek to intervene.

"Obviously there are going to be a lot of difficult cases like this in the future," said a government spokesman.

The simple, stone grave of Koos Kwena's father, Johannes, is here, alongside that of his mother, Katleen. Kwena has planted small cactus flowers atop both plots and painstakingly pulled all the weeds from between the rough, red stones.

When Kwena, 62, was evicted in 1971, he moved to a nearby black township and worked for many years for a fencing company. Recently he was laid off. "It was too hard to live there," he said. "This is our land. We can survive here."