As an 11th-generation Afrikaner, Christoff Heyns struggles these days over what to teach his three children about their heritage. He is uncomfortable with seemingly innocent elements of his own childhood like khaki shorts, which ultimately became a symbol of the Afrikaner right wing. He examines traditional songs for racist undertones. He picks through historical figures for those worth admiring.

It is a strange time, he says. On the one hand it is liberating to know that the apartheid system his forefathers put in place is dead. "We can get on with our lives and not have to worry about being the ones running the evil empire anymore," he said.But he must now try to carve out a new identity in a new South Africa. He worries what future the country will offer his children. Will the new government stick to its promises of equality for all or take revenge on them for the sins of their ancestors?

"We have to take from the past what is good," he said. "To cut our losses and build something new." But, he asked with a sigh, how?

Nearly four years after South Africa held its first all-race elections and the white supremacist government was forced to hand over power to the black majority, many Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch, German and French settlers who ruled for most of this century, are groping for honorable berths in the new order. None finds it easy.

Compared with the hardships they imposed on blacks, their complaints seem slight indeed, but they are nonetheless painful for them.

Many feel humiliated and powerless and think their very existence is under attack. They point to the work of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which nearly every day hears former police and army officials with Afrikaner surnames confess to torture and murder. They say new legislation threatens to force public schools that teach in Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch, to switch to English or African languages. And the civil service, once an employment agency for Afrikaners, now virtually only hires blacks. Income surveys indicate that Afrikaners are slipping down the economic ladder for the first time in decades.

Shaped by more than three centuries of harsh pioneer life, Afrikaners call themselves the white tribe of Africa. They developed a tradition that blended Europe and Africa in ways seen nowhere else - a culture in which covered wagons, German Mauser rifles, Wagnerian operas, Malaysian spices, the Old Testament and African cattle all played important parts.

During their years in power, they turned casual segregation into a rigid system called apartheid that denied blacks the vote, the right to own land where they chose and the right to a decent education. They forced most citizens to speak Afrikaans and crushed dissent.

But the surrender of power has left this community, about 7 percent of the population, unsure of how to go forward. Its institutions are failing. Its political flagship, the National Party, is in disarray. The Broderbond, a secret society that once wielded enormous power, barely exists anymore. Membership in the Dutch Reformed Church, which for years taught that the Bible justified apartheid and is now splitover how fully to apologize for this, has declined sharply.

Last month, when former President P.W. Botha was charged with contempt for refusing to describe his role in the atrocities of the security forces committed in 1980s, he warned that dragging him into court would "awaken the tiger" in the Afrikaner community.

But Botha's appearance drew fewer than 30 supporters, and leading Afrikaners say there is little talk of an armed uprising. The mood these days is more of disaffection and cynicism than right-wing revolution.

"We are in a period of navel-gazing, asking, `What did we do wrong?' " said Tim du Plessis, deputy editor of Beeld, the country's largest Afrikaans-language paper. "It's like an accident. We keep going back to the scene to try to figure out what happened."

Some Afrikaners believe their season in this country is over. For the first time, significant numbers are emigrating. Others, determined to remain, expect an uphill battle.

Louw Erasmus, a successful Pretoria real estate lawyer, intends to stay. "Afrikaners are Africans," he said, adding that they must learn to thrive without government help, becoming more entrepreneurial as other white groups here, the Greeks and the Portuguese, did in the past. Those groups, he said, could never count on government jobs under the old order, yet they prospered.

Though he and his friends rarely discuss it, he says, he believes that Afrikaners must make up for the decades of depriving blacks. He would accept a tax on his wealth earmarked for hospitals or schools in poor black areas. But he considers the millions spent on the Truth Commission, set up to investigate the brutalities of the past, a divisive waste.

He grows embarrassed trying to explain how whiteness became so important.

"It is not easy to explain our history," he said. "Every nation has its flaws." He thinks absolute power corrupted Afrikaner ideals of pioneer equality and Christianity. He worries now that power will have a similar effect on the largely black African National Congress.

But some Afrikaners say that Erasmus' remorse is not typical. Christina Landman, a professor of theology at the University of South Africa, says many Afrikaners are avoiding moral debate about their culpability.

On a recent trip to a small Afrikaner town, she said, she was appalled to see how little had changed. She watched one evening as blacks were told there was no room for them in the nearly empty local restaurant.

In church, she said, the minister's sermon concerned the pain of poverty in India. But life in the nearby black township, a cluster of metal shacks without running water, never came up.