THERE is a rare moment of opportunity in South Africa - and moments of opportunity do not come along often in that beautiful but race-ridden country. There is the opportunity for the white government, with a new leader in control, to take a bold step. It can release African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for a quarter of a century for his opposition to apartheid.
There is the opportunity for the African National Congress to take a similarly bold step. It can forswear violence, in which it has engaged, and begin a process of dialogue and negotiation with the white government.
There are risks for both sides.
The new leader of the governing National Party, Frederik de Klerk, must deal with predictable white extremist reaction to Mr. Mandela's release. But the pressures on him from other governments to make a move are intense. Mandela is elderly and his continued imprisonment after so many years is a political embarrassment. Even within South Africa, aside from the white extremist fringe, there appears to be greater white acceptance of Mandela's release than in earlier years.
Meanwhile, by forswearing violence, the ANC would, as it sees it, be surrendering one of its few levers in its confrontation with the white South African government. Its leverage has not been effective so far. The Soviet Union seems to be reconsidering its support of the ANC's military operations; the Congress is about to lose its training bases in Angola; and the white South African regime is quite competent at dealing with terrorists.
I have lived with the South African problem too long - both inside and outside South Africa - to suggest gushingly that racial peace and harmony are about to break out. Getting people to engage in a dialogue does not necessarily a solution make. The problem is immense; the feelings strong; the bitterness great.
But we are at a moment in time when dialogue could begin - and one of the most devilish aspects of South Africa's problem has been the inability of whites and blacks, in their separate little racial boxes, to communicate.
The time is right. Mr. de Klerk's government is groping for a new approach. The world is changing. Blocs are realigning. Tensions are fading. A policy based on racial supremacy is increasingly antediluvian. South Africa cannot exist as the eternal pariah.
Meanwhile, if there is to be a new approach in South Africa, the African National Congress should not be left out of the game. Now is its opportunity to put violence aside and test the sincerity of the white government in negotiations.
Renunciation of violence is a condition De Klerk has set for reentry of the presently banned ANC into political life.
After a dramatic meeting recently with South Africa's President Pieter Botha, Mandela said he was committed to a peaceful solution of South Africa's problems. De Klerk is probing whether that means a renunciation of terrorism, and whether the African National Congress as a whole will endorse that.
For many years the African National Congress, especially under the leadership of Nobel peace prize winner Albert Luthuli, was a non-violent organization promoting African nationalism. In its frustration at making no headway against white supremacist rule, it developed a militant wing. These guerrillas operated against white targets, but also against blacks considered tools of the white regime.
The hazards of negotiation are considerable. The hazards of not negotiating are substantially worse. Talking would be a start. Why not try it? The alternative for South Africa is disaster.