Timing in South Africa

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WALTER SISULU, one of the leaders of the African National Congress, called it a ``half measure.'' More precisely, it was a three-quarters measure. Last Thursday South African President Frederik de Klerk lifted the state of emergency in three of South Africa's four provinces. Only in Natal, the scene of frequent fighting between rival black political groups, did Mr. De Klerk leave in place the carte blanche security measures imposed by his predecessor, P.W. Botha, in 1986. De Klerk's action is one more major step down the road he embarked on last fall, whose destination is the end of apartheid and full participation by blacks in South Africa's political life. De Klerk's government already had largely stopped enforcing the harsh powers to ban political gatherings and impose strict press censorship. But the state of emergency remained a potent symbol of Pretoria's willingness to shunt aside due process in crushing black resistance.

Why did De Klerk hedge with regard to Natal? Even without emergency measures the government has ample police powers to curb the battling there between the ANC and followers of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Perhaps he needed to appease his security forces. Or maybe it was a nod to white opponents on the right, who the day before demonstrated growing power in a parliamentary by-election near Durban. The National Party barely held control of a previously safe seat.

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But De Klerk's government, which doesn't have to face the voters again for nearly five years, isn't truly threatened by a conservative backlash. So it's hoped that, after a very brief ``decent interval,'' De Klerk will end the state of emergency in Natal, thereby fulfilling one of his undertakings to the ANC in talks last month.

There is speculation that De Klerk's announcement was timed partly to undercut Nelson Mandela, just starting a trip to Europe and North America to urge continued economic sanctions against South Africa.

It is far too early in the process being hammered out by Pretoria and anti-apartheid groups for the international community to take actions that could alter the negotiations climate. The nascent anti-apartheid coalition - unlike the government - is still getting on its feet, putting people in place, and laboriously working out a platform and tactics.

The US and other countries can ``reward'' De Klerk by supporting the process, opening channels of communication, and providing aid for such purposes as resettling exiles returning to South Africa. But for now, sanctions still contribute to keeping the playing field level.

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