The decision by President-elect Frederik de Klerk to allow peaceful anti-apartheid protest in South Africa could ease racial conflict and usher in an era of interracial dialogue. ``The government has no objection to peaceful and orderly protest, provided proper cognizance is taken of the laws of our country,'' Mr. De Klerk said in an official statement Tuesday, paving the way for yesterday's march in Cape Town - the first major protest since a nationwide state of emergency was declared on June 12, 1986.
De Klerk's bland statement concealed a major switch in policy by a government which has used its full might to outlaw and crush even the mildest protest against apartheid laws.
The decision was taken following the intervention of senior Western diplomats, including United States Ambassador William Swing, who presented his credentials to De Klerk last Friday.
The diplomats met Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Foreign Minister Roelof Botha on consecutive days this week.
The turnabout also followed meetings between Dutch Reformed Church moderator Johan Heyns and Archbishop Tutu and later with De Klerk.
Professor Heyns said on state-controlled television Tuesday that the clerics and Pretoria officials had agreed that the Cape Town march was not a protest against the government but a ``peaceful march for freedom.''
To soften the shift in policy, senior officials pointed out that peaceful protest had always been possible, subject to approval. But in the past permission was seldom granted.
Since anti-apartheid leaders began a peaceful campaign of defiance against apartheid laws six weeks ago, the central demand has been the right to stage peaceful protests without police intervention.
``The door to a new South Africa is open - it is not necessary to batter it down,'' said De Klerk, committing himself to full political representation for all races.