WASHINGTON — AS South African President Frederik de Klerk continues to dismantle the structure of apartheid, Washington is preparing for what promises to be a heated battle over the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on South Africa. At issue will be whether the South African government has met five conditions laid out in the 1986 United States sanctions law which, since it took effect, has ended almost all commerce between the two nations.
"We're close to having a very serious discussion about the lifting of the sanctions. I think that could occur in the next few weeks," says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, a key backer of the original sanctions legislation.
By scrapping the Population Registration Act, which classified all South Africans by race from birth, South Africa this week met one of the key US criteria for repeal of sanctions: elimination of the laws that kept blacks separate from whites by requiring their registration and restricting where they could live.
Of the four other conditions, three have been met, according to Bush administration officials.
They are: repeal of the state of emergency; allowing once-banned political parties such as the African National Congress fully back into politics; and the beginning of no-preconditions negotiations with the black majority.
The last unmet condition is the release of all political prisoners, according to the White House. Lifting of sanctions can't occur without it, yet it involves sticky problems of definition. Who is a legitimate political prisoner, and who is just a common criminal?
The South African government says it has about 300 political prisoners still in its jails, while some anti-apartheid and international human rights groups put the number closer to 2,000.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Tuesday that the Bush administration does not have an official list of political prisoners still to be released, but noted that over 1,000 had been let free so far, including the most famous one - Nelson Mandela. The US Embassy in South Africa will follow developments closely in coming weeks to determine if all political prisoners are in fact being released.
"If all political prisoners were released, then the sanctions would be automatically terminated under the law," Mr. Fitzwater said.
Under the sanctions law, after President Bush certifies to Congress that conditions have been met, lawmakers have 30 days to disapprove the lifting of sanctions by passing a joint resolution. It is possible a serious effort could be mounted to pass such a resolution, as any administration move to lift sanctions would almost certainly face resistance.
For one thing, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a number of other legislators dispute the administration's contention that four conditions have already been met. They feel, for instance, that the ANC won't be fully integrated into national politics until there is black participation in the South African election process.
Other critics complain that despite considerable progress toward change, Mr. De Klerk is not making a clean break with his country's discriminatory history.
Pauline Baker, a South Africa expert at the Carnegie Endowment, says de Klerk in recent months has taken a "limp" approach to helping solve township violence. Among other things, she says, he has refused to discipline police, fire ministers, or dismantle the men's-only hostels for migrant laborers.
She says Bush should link the lifting of sanctions to the beginning of full-scale constitutional talks in South Africa. The best concrete evidence that the de Klerk government is acting in good faith will be "when they actually get to the conference table," Ms. Baker says.