SOUTH Africa is coming in from the cold. Already black Africa is paying much more attention and trading openly, Europe has begun relaxing sanctions, Japan is buying formerly banned coal, and the United States could soon ease its own economic boycott. Each of these trends is based on the growing perception that apartheid is really ending. President Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria has called President Frederik W. de Klerk of South Africa a man of courage; President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya this month welcomed Mr. De Klerk to his own country; and the Organization of African Unity (OAU), at its meeting this month in Abuja, Nigeria, agreed to study OAU strictures against South Africa to see if and when they can be lifted.
The legal underpinnings of apartheid will in fact be erased from the South African statue book by the end of this month. The hated Lands acts of 1913 and 1936, which crowded 87 percent of the population into 13 percent of the country, are gone. So is the Group Areas Act, which segregated urban areas. The Population Registration Act, which separated all South Africans by color, is also being repealed.
Hernus Kuiel, minister of planning, provincial affairs, and national housing, said that the intention of the ruling white National Party was to turn apartheid into a "political dodo." Apartheid, he said, had been a "social experiment that was supposed to bring peace, safety, and prosperity," but it had failed.
At the end of this month all that will be left of the legal superstructure of apartheid will be the Promotion of Black Self-Government and National States Constitution acts. Together, they created South Africa's homelands, nearly all of which now would prefer to be dismantled.
When the homeland laws go, every segregationist measure that the National Party voted into law since 1948 will be revoked. But a fundamental distinction between whites and blacks will remain: Blacks have never voted directly for national representatives. Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress are clamoring for the right to vote alongside whites, Asians, and Coloreds, and thus for majority rule.
The ANC and its allies want American, European, and African sanctions to remain until De Klerk and the National Party show a continuing, even a conclusive, willingness to share power decisively with blacks and to give them the vote.
Yet because South Africa is the economic powerhouse of Africa, and because it can pay high prices for Nigerian oil, purchase agriculture products from Kenya, invest in Madagascar, and so on, there are incentives for open resumptions of trade and, in many cases, even the renewal of air links. Given the revocation of legal apartheid, the incentives have recently become overpowering.
South Africa managed last month to borrow large sums of capital for the first time in many years in Germany and Britain. The Japanese reportedly want to lift their own formal sanctions, following the lead of the European Community.
IN the United States, however, a relaxation of trading and investing bans against South Africa could take considerably longer. Although South Africa may well have fulfilled most of the conditions contained in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, including the repeal of laws, the release of prisoners, and the beginning of negotiations, precisely how whites will share power and how and when blacks will be able to vote is still undecided and uncertain.
President Bush admires De Klerk and wants to support his efforts. But Congress will want to see proof of more than good intentions. It may wish to examine the manner in which the white parliament has revoked segregationist laws while giving neighborhood committees the right to set norms for their residential environments and white-run school committees the right to establish separate-race schools.
The National Party cannot recreate apartheid in miniature or disguise, but it doubtless wants to cushion whites against change and a widely feared "lowering of standards." Now that the Lands acts are repealed, too, it is afraid to restore ancestral territories that were taken away from 3.5 million blacks since 1960, lands they now seek to have restored.
All of these caveats, and the absence of the vote, will likely stay Congress's hand. Official sanctions, as well as the prohibitions against doing business with South Africa through US companies that have been enacted by 127 states and cities, will consequently remain until Mr. Mandela and the ANC decide otherwise.
However much South Africa desperately needs investment from outside, and renewed trade with the West, the ANC does not yet want to lose its leverage on whites - a leverage that the ANC believes has helped bring about the end of apartheid.