SOUTH AFRICA'S white leader, Frederik de Klerk, has come and gone with nothing like the mass adulation that greeted Nelson Mandela, South Africa's black leader, on his American tour. But it is a triumph for De Klerk, nonetheless. For he has cracked the American support for sanctions against his country, sanctions imposed in a power play against South Africa's reviled apartheid policies.
If De Klerk comes through with further reforms, the sanctions could be lifted in a matter of months. This is good news for him. His country is beset by economic recession - a problem made more difficult by the current Iraqi crisis and the rising price of oil. Lifting of the sanctions would ease his country's plight and bolster his political position.
Some congressmen remain cautious about going along with lifting the sanctions. And black American activists like Randall Robinson deplore the fact that President Bush even met with President De Klerk, let alone would consider removing the sanctions.
But Bush did the right thing. As white South African liberal politician Helen Suzman has consistently argued, the people worst hit by the sanctions have been the black workers the sanctions were intended to help.
Beyond this, De Klerk deserves help from Bush. De Klerk has put his political career on the line by releasing Nelson Mandela from prison, and by dismantling some of apartheid's worst excesses. The lifting of sanctions would be a recognition of how far he has come, and an encouragement to pursue his reforms to their logical conclusion.
Nobody has been more critical of apartheid, and the agony it has caused over the years, than this columnist. I lived in South Africa for a number of years, then served as a foreign correspondent there for six more. I mourned the violence done to African friends, and seethed at the injustice and intolerance of the white regime.
And though my aggravation was as nothing to that suffered by blacks, I too was harassed by the security police, and threatened, and had them sitting on my telephone line as they sought to screw down the lid on political expression of any critical character.
But having experienced all this, I believe that President De Klerk has effected a transformation in South Africa every bit as dramatic and far-reaching as the change that Mikhail Gorbachev has brought to the Soviet Union. While it is possible that he could be toppled, it is unthinkable that the clock could be turned back under his rule. Apartheid is being demolished. The black majority, as was inevitable, is moving to assume its rightful role in a multiracial society.
To think that this stunning reversal in policy is being accomplished without serious problems, or that it guarantees a tranquil hereafter, would be ridiculous.
Mr. De Klerk is under serious political fire, even personal jeopardy, from right-wing white extremists unwilling to accept the coming reality of the situation in South Africa. There are suggestions that some members of the white security forces have joined with black troublemakers to foment violence and undermine the delicate accord Mr. De Klerk has worked out with Mr. Mandela.
Beyond this, there has been widespread violence among Africans themselves, mainly between the Xhosas who are the mainstay of Mr. Mandela's African National Congress, and the Zulus who support the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. This is a struggle for power in the coming South Africa, a struggle with distinct tribal overtones.
It is a reminder that bigotry and confrontation are not compartmentalized along black-white lines in South Africa. The struggle for power sets white against white and black against black as well as black against white.
What Mandela and De Klerk are trying to do is bring radical and long-overdue change to South Africa as harmoniously as possible in the face of long-festering suspicion and hatred. Mr. Bush has been right to laud Mandela first, and support De Klerk second.