Next Steps In S. Africa

SOUTH Africa has taken another step out of the darkness of apartheid with the abolition of its Population Registration Act. Under that act, all South Africans were categorized at birth according to race. But there are contradictions in present-day South Africa that cloud even such an auspicious event as the junking of apartheid's most egregious law. While progress at the political level is undeniable, progress on the ground is painfully slow.

President Frederik de Klerk's task, now, is to show he's ready to enter into constitutional negotiations with the African National Congress (ANC) and other opposition groups in good faith. Three areas demand his attention:

*-The freeing of political prisoners and return of political exiles. The government has made headway in addressing these key ANC concerns, but has also thrown bureaucratic obstacles in the way of completing the job. This issue is critical to Nelson Mandela's credibility among his ANC supporters and thus to his ability to enter negotiations with the government.

*-The horrible violence in South Africa's black townships. It continues despite talks between Mr. Mandela and Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and despite Mr. De Klerk's assertions that the government would get tough. Violence-breeding worker hostels should be replaced and combatants disarmed - including spear and club carrying Zulus. Unless the government takes a more unequivocal stand against the violence, charges of official complicity will continue.

*-Apartheid's heritage of degradation and underdevelopment. The laws may be a memory, but apartheid's effects are still everyday life for black South Africans. Anyone can own land now, but most blacks are too poor to buy land. Schools are open to all races, if 72 percent of white parents vote to open them - and that has happened in only a handful of places. Black primary and secondary education is in a dismal state.

Signs of good faith in these areas will smooth the way toward negotiations and full political participation for all South Africans. They'll also signal the time has come to lift remaining international sanctions.

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