THE release of Nelson Mandela by the South African government, and the steps leading to it, have changed the question before US policymakers. When February began, the question was whether to stiffen sanctions, as proposed by a growing movement in Congress. Now the question is: When will the United States be ready to remove some of the existing sanctions?
At a news conference on Monday, President Bush said he would not try to lift any of the sanctions against South Africa before statutory requirements for doing so are met. The clearest indicator of the new outlook, however, came from Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois on Monday. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, Senator Simon suspended all further subcommittee action on his own bill to toughen sanctions.
Instead of tough battles in Congress over adding pressure on South Africa, Simon now sees greater optimism for progress toward black power-sharing there.
``There's the feeling that what's happened is clearly the prelude to serious negotiations'' between South Africa's government and black leaders, he said Monday in a telephone interview.
``We were headed for a very contentious debate, I think, prior to this action,'' says a spokesman for Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1986 when current sanctions were passed by Congress. ``It will still be a debate, but it will be a different debate.''
The US sanctions bar imports of South African iron, steel, uranium, and other goods and commodities, as well as new business investment in South Africa. Other Western nations and organizations have similar sanctions.
The sanctions are credited with more political, or psychological, impact than economic by isolating South Africa from the world. South Africa expert Robert Rotberg, academic vice president of Tufts University, believes change in South Africa was brought about by the psychological effect of the sanctions, a new Soviet approach to Africa, and a South African economy sluggish for reasons other than sanctions.
With Mr. Mandela's release, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately proposed to encourage the European Community to lift its sanctions.
Few such responses appeared elsewhere. In the US, Mandela's release did not inspire any serious proposals to lift the sanctions directly. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which passed Congress over the veto of President Reagan, sets conditions for lifting the sanctions.
Some observers, including Dr. Rotberg, expect progress in a matter of weeks. ``I think the spirit of the anti-apartheid act is on the verge of being met,'' he says. ``But the letter of the act will not be met for some time.''
The act requires that South Africa release Mandela, and all political prisoners, and meet three out of four other conditions before the president can consider lifting the sanctions.
The Bush administration argues that South Africa has already met two of the other conditions.
One is that South Africa lift bans on political parties and allow expression of views and participation of all South Africans. The country lifted its ban on the African National Congress and the 33 other banned parties Feb. 2.
The other is that the government enter good-faith negotiations with ``truly representative'' black leaders. A State Department official says South Africa ``has said that it wants to enter negotiations,'' and has met this condition.
Stephen Weissman, staff director of the House foreign affairs subcommittee on Africa, counters that the government has agreed to talk to all blacks regardless of how representative they are and refuses to allow a constituent assembly to determine who speaks for blacks. ``Basically they haven't even come close to meeting any of the conditions,'' he says.
The other conditions are that South Africa lift its state of emergency and repeal the Group Areas Act of 1949 that codifies residential segregation by race. The administration considers the act's repeal of the Group Areas Act to be the condition most likely not to meet.
South Africa last October released six leaders of the ANC who had been imprisoned more than 25 years. Yet other political prisoners remain behind bars.
Bush's response was to invite Mr. de Klerk to the White House. This marks the first invitation to a South African president, a State Department official says. Bush called Mandela with a similar invitation. Both men, Bush said Monday, accepted ``in principle.''
Hard-line anti-apartheid activists, including Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, see Bush's invitation as premature when South Africa still holds political prisoners and has yet to begin negotiations.
But Rotberg says he ``would not be surprised if Mandela were part of a shared power government within a year and a half.''
Senator Simon is not as optimistic: ``I do expect within a year that we'll have negotiations going. It could be as soon as six months.''