Johannesburg — In 1976 the Rev. Allan Hendrickse spent 60 days in solitary confinement sleeping on a cold cement floor when he was not being interrogated by South African police about his political activities.
Now, Mr. Hendrickse, a Colored (person of mixed race descent), has decided to join forces with the white South African rulers who once imprisoned him. Before the year is out he could be a member of the Cabinet.
Has Hendrickse ''sold out'' or has apartheid softened?
South Africa's 2.7 million Coloreds are asking themselves this question as they debate whether to vote on Aug. 22. Those who do vote will elect representatives to a new-style South African government that will no longer be exclusively white. But it will continue to exclude the country's black majority.
''I haven't changed,'' says a defiant Hendrickse, arms folded and head thrown back. ''I want to use the system the way I want to use it, to get more out of it.''
He says he is backing the white government's plan to give nonwhites a limited role in Parliament because he is a ''realist'' and sees no alternative for racial advancement except violence. He says while the ruling National Party has given him ''no assurances whatsoever'' about future reforms, he fully expects ''meaningful changes.''
The Colored leader's first attempt to extract more from the government has been only marginally successful. He failed to get the government to scrap a law forbidding integrated political parties. But the government did agree to consider changing or repealing the law later this year. Hendrickse called it a victory for ''the process of negotiation.''
Hendrickse is leader of the largest Colored political group, the Labor Party, which decided last year to participate in the new tricameral Parliament. Without his blessing, South Africa's white rulers probably would not have been able to go ahead with their legislative plan.
The Parliament actually will be three separate chambers of whites, Coloreds, and Indians. Ultimate power in the new Parliament will remain in the hands of whites. While advocates say the new body offers a glimmer of change and is worth a try, critics dismiss it as a perpetuation of apartheid.
Allan Boesak, a minister in South Africa's Colored Dutch Reformed Church and president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, is one of the chief critics of the Labor Party's decision to participate. ''They are not helping us. They are going in there and entrenching the very things that we ought to be getting rid of,'' he says.
Hendrickse's decision to go into the new Parliament has been controversial from the start, and it is not clear whether most Coloreds agree with him. Almost immediately following the Labor Party decision in early 1983, charges began to fly at the party's public meetings. But Hendrickse has remained firm. He rejects Boesak's call for a boycott of the colored elections, saying boycott politics have gotten them nowhere and it is time to try a new tack.
''We're entering a new period of politics of persuasion. I'm prepared to accept elements of reform to get out of the politics of protest,'' he said in an interview earlier this year at the Labor Party's small Cape Town office, located over a warehouse.
Hendrickse admittedly is making many compromises in going into the new Parliament:
''The new constitution does not meet our demands. We do not accept the exclusion of blacks,'' he says. ''But we had to sit down and ask ourselves realistically: Are there elements of reform here? And we said yes. For the first time, people other than whites are becoming part of the decisionmaking process. The principle is there.''
Coloreds in the Cape Province, where most of them live, were able to vote for white members of Parliament up to 1956. In that year they were removed from the common voters roll, registered separately, and allowed to be represented by only four whites in Parliament. In 1969 the representation of Colored people in Parliament was abolished altogether.
In a historical sense, Coloreds in 1984 are being given a vote that is only a partial restoration of the political rights they enjoyed prior to 1956.
Boesak says the worst result of the new racially divided Parliament is to reinforce a sense of separate identity among Coloreds. Coloreds are a mixture of the indigenous people of Africa and European settlers. They do not enjoy the privileges of whites, but they are not so restricted as blacks. The result: ''a cultural dilemma as to where we actually belong,'' says Boesak.
But the so-called Black Consciousness political movement of the late 1960s was a watershed for Coloreds, emphasizing that Coloreds were ''politically black'' in the South African context.
''Black consciousness taught us to take sides with the African majority,'' says Boesak. He sees the new Parliament as an attempt by the white government to reverse that political trend, setting Coloreds apart from blacks.
The nuts and bolts of the new tricameral Parliament are such that Coloreds will not be able to change broad apartheid laws without the consent of whites. Whites will have built-in majorities in all the key institutions of Parliament, and the president of South Africa will be elected by a white-dominated electoral college.
Specifically, laws relating to blacks will be classified as ''general affairs ,'' meaning they will have to be approved by all three houses. Hendrickse concedes that on questions of national policy he will have to rely on moral suasion to try to change apartheid.
Under the new parliamentary setup, Coloreds will have more power to run their own communities because each house will have jurisdiction over matters dealing exclusively with that race group. But the definition of these so-called ''own affairs'' will be made by the president.
Exercising this expanded power over their ''own affairs'' involves a compromise. For instance, Hendrickse says the Labor Party rejects the policy of racially segregated education, but welcomes the idea of putting Colored education in the hands of a Colored minister.
Boesak argues that making improvements within the apartheid structure is no gain at all. ''There is nothing you can do within that (new parliamentary) system except beautify it, with more schools and better roads.'' Boesak says the new Parliament will perpetuate the ''violence inherent in apartheid'' and push the excluded black majority closer to the conviction that peaceful change is no longer possible in South Africa.
''The message that goes out from this kind of action (participating in the new Parliament) is to say to Africans, 'Sorry, pal. You're on your own,' '' says Boesak.