THE unraveling of apartheid is gathering momentum. In the debate on political change in South Africa, the lifting of sanctions now hinges on white and black perceptions as to whether the process of change has become irreversible.
``It is quite clear that any chance of reverting to a policy of apartheid based on race has gone,'' says Prof. Nic Olivier, research director for the moderately liberal Democratic Party.
President Frederik de Klerk has committed his government to remove the remaining foundations of apartheid but insists that this must be done during the process of negotiating a new constitution.
Such a foundation includes: the Group Areas Act, which enforces residential segregation; the Land Act, which allocates 87 percent of the land for whites and only 13 percent for blacks; and the Population Registration Act, the mechanism whereby blacks are prevented from voting.
During his current trip to Western Europe, Mr. De Klerk appears to have been successful in persuading French, Greek, Portugese, and Belgian officials that the political process in South Africa has become irreversible.
But what looks like irreversible change to the leaders of Western Europe looks very different to the African National Congress. ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela contends that apartheid will end only when black South Africans are able to vote.
``What is important is not talk but action,'' Mr. Mandela says. ``It is not the peripheral reforms he is making that interests us. The most basic of our demands is for everybody to have the right to determine his own affairs. And Mr. De Klerk is nowhere near considering that demand.''
ANC spokesman Steve Tshwete says that current progress signals a ``departure from the norms of the past'' but was inadequate. ``The eradication of apartheid will not come about through the piecemeal removal of offensive laws,'' he says. ``It will be resolved when negotiations get going in earnest.''
During the past four weeks the government has moved to open hospitals to all races. The decision, which followed a campaign of defiance and strikes by anti-apartheid groups and black hospital staff, is expected to lead to the desegregation of 246 provincial hospitals.
National Health Minister Rina Venter says this would open the way for the transfer of patients from chronically overcrowded black hospitals to white hospitals, many of which have empty wings or wards.
Last week, Education Deputy Minister Piet Marais disclosed that the government was working toward a single education department for all races. The issue of segregated schools and neighborhoods has been nonnegotiable for the ruling National Party.
On the same day last week, Development Aid Minister Stoffel van der Merwe admitted that it was no longer the government's intention to promote the ``independence'' of the six self-governing black homelands.
The system of granting autonomy to tribal homelands was the foundation stone of territorial - or ``grand'' - apartheid.
In South Africa's major cities, racial segregation - or petty apartheid, as it is known here - has been largely removed. Cinemas, theaters, swimming pools, parks, libraries, hotels, public transport, and other accommodations are fully integrated.
The foundation for these changes was laid over the past 15 years as the government adjusted to demographic and economic realities.
By the mid-1970s the government had acknowledged the permanence of blacks in urban areas and it began to legalize black trade unions and phase out the reservation of certain categories of work for whites.
In the early 1980s former President Pieter Botha scrapped the laws forbidding marriage and sex across the color line and in 1986 repealed influx control laws (known as pass laws) that governed the daily movements of blacks.
Unlike Botha, De Klerk - through his actions - has established his credibility with anti-apartheid groups. ``We shall never be able to have complete peace in South Africa as long as there is statutory discrimination,'' he told Parliament April 19.
But in many far-flung rural and mining towns, conservative local councils have used the Separate Amenities Act to maintain racial segregation.
The decision on hospitals and schools will challenge the existence of 14 separate racially based structures which administer health services and education. It is estimated that maintaining these separate administrations costs billions of rand a year.
Experts insist that the economic legacy of apartheid will be the most lasting and difficult problem to solve. ``There is a need to do something substantial to improve immediately the lot of masses of people living under conditions of extreme poverty and deprivation,'' says Ronnie Bethlehem, group economist for Johannesburg Consolidated Investments.
Professor Olivier says that ``As long as these inequalities are still dominant a new constitution is not going to work.''