No one cheered louder than organized labor when the African National Congress toppled South Africa's oppressive apartheid regime five years ago. Bullied by white bosses, black workers had joined forces with the exiled liberation front. When the white minority government fell, unions expected a new deal from the new ruling party.

But the cheering has stopped. After rewriting South Africa's constitution to protect workers' rights, the African National Congress (ANC) is now considering legislation that would loosen restrictions on employers' ability to hire and fire. Party leaders have publicly questioned whether the ANC will continue its alliance with organized labor, and more than 550,000 workers walked off their jobs last month--the largest industrial action since the end of apartheid--to protest the ANC's rejection of their demand for a 7.3 percent pay raise.

"They are as bad as the National Party of old," said Musa Mukuhlwa, a government worker, referring to the country's previous ruling party. "We didn't think we'd have to deal with tactics like this once we got rid of apartheid."

South Africa's liberators have discovered that the idealistic notions of politics formed while battling their oppressors sometimes clash with the gritty realities of government. Unemployment, crime and an increasingly impatient public have hardened the ANC's romanticism and forced the children of apartheid--the legal system of racial separation--to shrink the egalitarian democracy that it began constructing in those first giddy days of freedom.

During the past 18 months, ANC officials who once saw their homes bulldozed by the apartheid government have approved the seizure of homes and other property from slumlords and criminal suspects who have not been convicted.

The ruling party has maneuvered to exclude political opponents from policymaking posts and centralized governmental authority to shape policy. And despite their abuse at the hands of the police and courts during the era of white minority rule, ANC officials have toughened prison sentences and granted police greater latitude to use deadly force when confronting criminals.

"The ANC is going through a maturation process right now," said Steven Friedman, a political analyst with the Center for Policy and Enterprise here. "The whole liberation ethos was, 'Once we get rid of apartheid, then the people will be fine.' Well, life is a little bit more complicated than that, and they are . . . nibbling away at the edges of what they have worked so hard to build."

Not even the ANC's most ardent critics seem to doubt the organization's devotion to its core democratic principles. There is little to indicate that the government might try to steer this nation of 40 million people toward an autocracy like the one in neighboring Zimbabwe, whose black majority wrested political power from a white minority 14 years before South Africa did the same.

ANC leaders began to reposition the party even before the first all-races election by shedding its socialist impulses to woo voters with its free-market economic plan. Since Nelson Mandela's election as the nation's first democratically elected president in 1994, the ANC has barely budged from the general outline of its Growth, Employment and Redistribution proposal, known as GEAR, which relies on lower taxes and reduced spending to attract badly needed foreign investment.

But it is clear that South Africans--both black and white--are growing restless with the government's pace in improving schools, building decent housing, curbing crime and jump-starting an economy that has left nearly 40 percent of the population without jobs and has caused anxious, educated whites to move to other countries.

The soaring rhetoric of Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, who often invokes the poetry of Keats or the imagery of a "human rights culture" in his speeches, is beginning to ring hollow for some of the two-thirds majority of voters who supported the ANC in this June's elections.

"Our desires," Phylicia Oppelt, a columnist for the Times newspaper wrote last month, "are commonplace this time: jobs, houses, water, classrooms and less crime. We can't eat the renaissance."

Mbeki and his cabinet seem to acknowledge as much by tinkering with a three-year-old constitution that was mostly their creation. With apartheid's legal framework demolished, many of the ANC's revisions in the past year have been to laws and policies that the party constructed during its first three years in office.

In his initial address to Parliament in June, Mbeki said his administration would amend the labor laws approved by the ANC in 1996 to address the business community's concerns that the legislation was too restrictive and discourages investment and expansion by entrepreneurs. And rather than bow to the wage demands made by government employees, the government instead unilaterally installed a pay hike smaller than the unions had demanded, then refused to negotiate any further.

"They are acting just like the anti-union employers of the past," said Vusi Nhlapo, a union leader here.

Similarly, the party's efforts to crack down on organized crime by seizing assets and other property without obtaining a conviction has drawn criticism from allies who threw their support behind the ANC during the struggle against white minority rule.

"It does invade the right of people quite dramatically," Jim Trengove, a lawyer who has represented Mandela, told reporters here. "It introduces new notions that didn't exist before."

The irony of such criticisms is not lost on ANC officials. When apartheid was the law of the land, they say, the world was reduced both ideologically and literally to black and white--absolutes. The ANC saw no gray and did not want to.

That's no longer the case. The inequities of apartheid left the ANC with complex problems that require hard choices if the party is to have any hope of expanding an economy that is somewhere between Third World and industrialized.

"It's understandable that we were focused on our freedom back then," said Pallo Jordan, a member of the ANC for 39 years and now a member of Parliament. "We wanted our freedom more than anything then, and sure there is irony involved. Some of what we're doing now might seem illiberal to the naked eye.

"But let's face it. What the hell is the use of any democratic right if you can't exercise it because you're afraid to leave your house at night, or you can't eat. Now we want both bread and freedom."