PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk has opened a new era in South Africa's history in which dialogue and reconciliation could hasten the end of 42 years of apartheid and repression. Oliver Tambo, leader of the African National Congress, in a joint statement with other ANC leaders, said Mr. De Klerk's speech before parliament last Friday ``goes a long way towards creating a climate conducive to negotiations.''
De Klerk's far-reaching formula for initiating a process of interracial dialogue was met with a mixture of joy, anger, and disbelief here.
``This is incredible,'' said Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leading apartheid foe. ``We thought he might deliver something - but what he said has taken my breath away.''
But ANC leaders qualified their support, expressing concern that not all political prisoners would be released, arbitrary detention would continue, and the 42-month-old nationwide emergency was only partially lifted. They called for immediate release of Nelson Mandela and for intensification of economic sanctions until apartheid is ended.
Other anti-apartheid groups like the United Democratic Front (UDF) appeared to be trapped in a kind of ``future shock.''
``I feel a strange mixture of excitement, pain, and anger,'' activist Zubeida Jaffer told the Monitor. ``Excitement because our organizations are free, and anger for the pain and suffering to which we have been subjected.''
De Klerk's speech will challenge activists to develop more subtle strategies of selective participation in offical structures.
UDF General-Secretary Patrick ``Terror'' Lekota said it was yet to be decided whether the UDF would continue as a separate entity now that the ANC was legalized. This is a dilemma facing all ANC-aligned anti-apartheid groups and their umbrella body, the Mass Democratic Movement.
He appealed to whites to shed their fears and prejudices about the ANC and accept it as one of the parties trying to make a constructive contribution to resolving the country's future.
In his historic speech, De Klerk redefined security interests and crossed the Rubicon his predecessor, President Pieter Botha, had balked at four-and-a-half years ago.
David Welsh, a University of Cape Town political scientist, says, ``He has irrevocably committed South Africa to a new constitution.''
It appears that recent events in Eastern Europe - which brought the collapse of undemocratic regimes - international pressure, and internal resistance by anti-apartheid groups were major factors that persuaded De Klerk to change course.
``Mr. De Klerk has regained the political initiative and taken the moral high ground,'' said Professor Welsh. ``But the risks are considerable because there can be no guarantee that peaceful negotiations will succeed.''
The moves have been broadly welcomed by the black community and are supported - to a lesser or greater degree - by about 70 percent of the country's 5 million whites.
The white business community welcomed De Klerk's speech. Equities on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the local currency surged sharply.
But neither rank-and-file blacks or whites are psychologically prepared for the collective impact of De Klerk's sweeping changes.
About 4,000 demostrators who thronged the streets of Cape Town as De Klerk made his speech seemed incredulous when told by their leaders that the ban on the ANC had been lifted. In the early hours of Saturday a convoy of cars - with horns blaring and displaying ANC and Soviet flags - drove through the city center to celebrate.
But a vocal minority of extremist whites are implacably opposed to the changes and seemed stunned by how far De Klerk had gone.
``Just don't tell me that. ... Just don't tell me that. Oh no, it can't be true,'' was the first reaction of the fiery leader of the far right-wing Afrikaner Resistance Movement, Eugene Terre Blanche, who has threatened a revolution once ANC leader Nelson Mandela is freed.
De Klerk's bold steps will bring white leaders face to face with authentic leaders of the black community. But formal talks are unlikely to get under way before the end of the year. Only then will the dismantling of remaining apartheid laws - like enforced residential segregation and race classification - be discussed.
In the short term, De Klerk's initiative will swing the focus of international pressure from Pretoria to ANC headquarters in exile in Lusaka, Zambia.
Whereas Pretoria has now met most of the conditions set out in the UN General Assembly peace plan for South Africa, the ANC must now decide whether it is ready to suspend its 29-year-old armed struggle against white rule.
The US assistant secretary of state for African affairs said recently, ``Our policy used to be putting pressure on the white power structure to accept the principle of negotiations. ... Now we feel the priority in our policy should be to put pressure on both the white power structure and the nonwhite majority to engage in fruitful negotiations.''
The ANC will seek a mandate for negotiations from its membership at its five-year conference scheduled for June. ANC leaders now speculate the meeting could take place inside South Africa.
International reaction to De Klerk's speech has been swift and overwhelmingly positive. But it is not expected that the US - or any other nation - will unilaterally lift sanctions until Mandela is free and both sides are at the negotiating table.
Even before De Klerk read his speech Friday, he and Mandela received invitations from President Bush to meet with him in Washington. This was followed by a similar invitation from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the obstacle-strewn period that lies ahead, De Klerk and Mandela will probably have to work as a team if the complex deal they have brokered is to succeed.
Says Mr. Welsh, ``They are going to need each other like Mutt and Jeff did.''