THE multiracial crowd of about 1,000 supporters of South Africa's ruling National Party (NP) soon picked up the moving tune of the anthem that inspired millions of blacks during more than four decades of apartheid rule.
The black delegates - sporting scarves, badges, and flags in the yellow, green, blue, and red colors of the NP - sang ``Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika'' (God Bless Africa), which is regarded by liberation movements as South Africa's anthem.
But the white Afrikaner delegates - who would normally sing the official anthem ``Die Stem'' (The Voice) on such occasions - had to glance at the Afrikaans lyrics flashing onto a screen above the stage.
The occasion was the annual conference of the NP in Transvaal, traditionally a conservative bastion of white supremacy. The meeting was held on Sept. 10-11 in a college hall draped with large banners proclaiming, in seven languages, ``Builders of a Better, New South Africa.''
It was the first time the African anthem had been sung at a public meeting of the NP, and it reflected the astonishing transformation that has taken place within the party since it opened its membership to all races two years ago.
Black delegates, proudly sporting NP insignia, reflected a freedom and nonchalance they do not enjoy in the black townships where displaying affiliation to the NP is to risk one's life.
``I am happy in the NP,'' said 20-year-old Themba Zizi of Soweto, who quit the African National Congress (ANC) last year because he believes the NP is better equipped to run the country.
``I found that the ANC structures were divided and disorganized,'' said Mr. Zizi. ``If the ANC governs this country, there will be poverty and problems like those experienced in the rest of Africa.
``We cannot participate freely in the election because it is difficult to organize [for the NP] in the townships,'' he added.
Asked whether he saw a solution to this problem, he replied with a broad smile: ``The solution is easy. They must give us guns.''
The party's new symbols - a shining sun and slogans such as ``dawn of a new era'' - have been well received here.
Recent opinion polls show the ANC would be a clear winner in a democratic ballot with at least 54 percent of the vote. The NP is accorded between 15 and 25 percent of the vote - about 45 percent of the white vote and less than 10 percent of the black vote.
President Frederik de Klerk ``is a strong leader, and he speaks the truth,'' said Collen Buthelezi, chairman of the NP youth branch in Soweto and a former ANC supporter who became disillusioned with the ANC over its treatment of detainees in exile detention camps. ``I want a better future for everyone, and I think the National Party will use the police force to promote peace and tolerance.''
Black, mixed-race, and Indian delegates mixed freely with whites and participated in debates on matters such as security, constitutional affairs, and the economy. ``This is what I have always dreamed of,'' a clearly delighted Roelof (Pik) Botha told delegates as he surveyed the multiracial crowd of NP delegates.
Mr. Botha, the longest serving foreign minister in the world and the Transvaal leader of the NP, told delegates that the Afrikaner had finally been liberated by having the ``albatross of apartheid'' removed from his neck. The hyperbole was an example of the preelection rhetoric in this country.
``It takes courage for a party to admit its mistakes of the past and to decide to follow a new road of reconcilitation,'' said John Mavuso, a former ANC official who left the liberation movement five years ago.