THE first-ever meeting between Nelson Mandela, leader of the outlawed African National Congress, and P.W. Botha, President of South Africa is cause for measured hope. We were also encouraged by the smile on Winnie Mandela's face after she met with her husband Monday, after her earlier skepticism. How substantial the meeting was, it is too soon to say. It has been described as everything from a ``courtesy visit'' by one official, to the most important current event in South Africa by Foreign Minister Roelof Botha, who supports the freeing of Mr. Mandela.
Still, the very fact of the meeting raises expectations for (at least) the release of Mandela, and (at most) continued progress towards more power sharing in South Africa, and an eventual end to apartheid.
Those expectations should be fulfilled, at least in some regard. If the meeting is just another exercise at imagemaking - creating the appearance of a ``kinder, gentler apartheid'' as one US observer put it - Pretoria will only be heaping up wrath against the day that change must come.
The logical end of Mr. Botha's meeting with Mandela, we hope, is to begin some form of negotiation between Pretoria and the African National Congress. National Party leader F.W. de Klerk, who takes over the presidency from Botha in September, is now under pressure to move in that direction.
The context for real change in South Africa is better now than in years past. Peace agreements in the region (Namibia) make it politic for Pretoria to take a softer line. The recent high-profile meeting between 115 leading white South Africans and the ANC weighs in. There's a new generation of Afrikaner leaders coming along who see the need for international trade. Blacks are less compliant; politically wiser.
More pragmatically, as their bank loans roll over next year and with unemployment high, South African leaders need to create more than an image of stability to qualify for long-term loans.
The needs of politics, economics, and history led Botha to meet with Mandela. But those needs can't be satisfied in 45 minutes.