PRESIDENT Bush was rightly generous in his praise for South African President Frederik de Klerk after the two heads of state met in Washington Monday. Mr. De Klerk has, indeed, displayed great courage in his efforts thus far to bring about fundamental reform in South Africa's abhorrent system of racial segregation. We hope, however, that Mr. Bush wasn't getting ahead of himself in characterizing as ``irreversible'' the process that De Klerk has set in motion, or in pledging to ``encourage and assist the emerging new South Africa.'' The reforms - dramatic though they have been - won't truly be irreversible until apartheid has been dismantled. And Bush's promise of encouragement and assistance should not be interpreted to include a premature loosening of the international sanctions against Pretoria.
President Bush was correct to meet with De Klerk, despite the grumbles of some anti-apartheid activists. Having met with Nelson Mandela this summer, Bush needed to accord De Klerk equal status. The US mustn't undermine the partnership that Mandela and De Klerk have developed in their quest for reform. Also, De Klerk must be seen by white South Africans to be deriving benefits from his moderate policies.
Yet it's far too early for the US to drift back into a variation of the Reagan administration's policy of ``constructive engagement'' with Pretoria, in which moral suasion was thought to be a substitute for sanctions. The legal superstructure of apartheid remains largely intact, and there are troubling questions about the secret involvement of white security forces in the black-against-black violence that recently has left hundreds of blacks dead.
The US must hold staunchly to the line that, while it will not strengthen the conditions it has set out for lifting sanctions, it won't relax them, either. Until those conditions are strictly complied with, sanctions should remain in effect - even as the US properly seeks additional ways to help the emergence of a free and democratic South Africa.