PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk's release Sunday of eight prominent black South Africans, five of whom were jailed a quarter century ago for their roles in the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), is the clearest sign yet of positive change in South Africa. It comes after a week notable first for Mr. De Klerk's announcement that the releases were coming and second for his three-hour discussion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Rev. Allan Boesak, and the Rev. Frank Chikane. The anti-apartheid churchmen acknowledged the South African president's commitment to change, but sharply criticized the government's reluctance to move quickly toward further steps of reform.
The weekend's events followed a pattern of liberalization that has included De Klerk's decision to allow peaceful demonstrations against apartheid. Looking ahead, the release of ANC leader Nelson Mandela is widely anticipated as the logical follow-up to the freeing of Walter Sisulu and other ANC officials.
The pace of change, clearly, is picking up. But reversals are possible. The police, long used to stamping out protest, may get out of hand and revert to truncheons and tear gas, or worse. Pro-apartheid extremists, though rebuked in the recent elections, are growling about the mass demonstrations now sweeping the country and threaten to take matters in their own hands.
Yet we hear the head of the Dutch Reformed Church, once a bulwark of apartheid, describing that system as ``a total failure'' and calling for reconciliation among all South Africans. And we see the country's president meeting with the system's most eloquent critics. That dialogue, if sustained, is itself a safeguard against reversal.
The steps taken by De Klerk so far should lead to others, such as lifting the repressive state of emergency, legalizing anti-apartheid organizations, and releasing all political prisoners, including Mr. Mandela. The dialogue now begun could then grow into substantive negotiation about the future of South Africa's institutions of government.
As that process moves forward, outside condemnation of the country should lessen and punitive measures like economic sanctions should cease.
South Africa's push toward reform is encouraging; the still considerable distance to attainment of genuine political participation by all citizens is shortening. And recent events indicate that violence doesn't have to mar the journey.