PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk's meeting today with President Bush at the White House symbolizes a giant stride for South Africa on the road to regaining international acceptability. The meeting could also help restore the momentum for a negotiated settlement in the face of sustained political violence in that country.
``It's a great opportunity for De Klerk to move South Africa further away from its pariah status,'' says a United States administration official.
South African officials are hopeful that Mr. De Klerk's visit could help pave the way for the eventual easing of sanctions and restoring access to international capital and development aid.
But the diplomatic breakthrough coincides with a souring of relations between Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) and the ruling National Party. They disagree over the causes of ongoing violence between supporters of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, loyal to Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and township residents who support the ANC.
The negotiating process that led to the suspension of the ANC's ``armed struggle'' has been severely strained by the violence which has claimed more than 800 lives since early August.
Mr. Mandela has blamed elements in the security forces for fanning the violence and warned that he might be forced to sanction the rearming of ANC cadres and to suspend negotiations unless De Klerk can discipline rogue soldiers and policemen. In a formal statement this week the ANC accused De Klerk of ``bad faith'' in the positions he has taken to end the violence.
De Klerk acknowledged 10 days ago that there appeared to be a ``hidden hand'' at work, but he did not elaborate. Last week he announced a security crackdown in the townships, including police roadblocks with mounted machine-guns, the sealing off of township hostels with razor wire, and night curfews in affected areas. He also announced the appointment of law officers to investigate violent incidents.
Hopes of easing the bitter conflict rose last week when the ANC announced that senior officials had held a secret meeting with an Inkatha delegation. Mandela subsequently invited Mr. Buthelezi to meet with anti-apartheid leaders, and the Zulu leader indicated his provisional acceptance, but scoffed at ANC preconditions.
Until now, Mandela has avoided meeting with Buthelezi because of strong resistance from ANC militants who insist that it will bestow undeserved credibility on the Inkatha leader.
US officials are concerned at the negative impact the violence is having on the negotiations and are eager to give the process a boost. The meeting, which follows an invitation from Bush in February, is an acknowledgment of De Klerk's personal role in the transformation of the political climate in South Africa.
``Over the past 12 months there have been very major changes in South Africa,'' says a senior US official. ``The visit recognizes the bold leadership of De Klerk and gives our president the opportunity to exchange views with him on the future of South Africa and on what role the United States can play in helping to promote the negotiating process.''
The meeting - the first between a US president and a South African leader since the National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948 - is also an affirmation of the interdependent partnership between De Klerk and Mandela in their quest for a democratic system of government.
``We are dealing here with two political Siamese twins,'' says a US official. ``Political survival for both of them means a successful conclusion of the negotiating process.''
De Klerk faces mounting condemnation from right-wing Afrikaners, who accuse him of selling out white interests, and being a ``turncoat'' and a ``traitor.'' He will also face an anti-apartheid demonstration outside the White House led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders who portray the South African leader as a shrewd master of public relations rather than a statesman.
``A meeting in the Oval Office is the crown jewel for De Klerk,'' says Randall Robinson, director of the anti-apartheid lobby group TransAfrica. ``We think it is a tragic mistake for a US president to take this step when important and repugnant features of the apartheid system are still in place and real negotiations to change the system have not even begun.''
Despite residual skepticism about De Klerk in activist circles, the South African leader has won widespread praise for his initiatives. ``I think he has taken considerable risks and has displayed the sincerity of his intentions which he knew would make it very difficult in his own constituency,'' says veteran human rights campaigner Helen Suzman who was the National Party's most outspoken critic during four decades in South Africa's Parliament.
In the exchanges preceding the visit it was agreed that the lifting of sanctions would not be an issue at this stage, US officials say. According to US law, the president may lift sanctions only when he deems the conditions laid out in the Comprehensive Apartheid Act of 1986 to have been met. Outstanding conditions include the lifting of remaining apartheid laws (like enforced residential segregation and race classification), ending of the state of emergency in Natal Province, and the completion of the process of releasing political prisoners.
US officials are confident that De Klerk will make a favorable impact on US public opinion and thus assist in the eventual lifting of sanctions when conditions have been met. De Klerk, who will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Roelof Botha, will also meet with Secretary of State James Baker III and members of Congress.
Pretoria officials are also hopeful that De Klerk's visit to Washington, coinciding with the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, could help win US backing to restore South African access to international financial institutions and capital markets.
US officials indicated that they would also be prepared to discuss the $10 million recently approved by the US Congress to promote the negotiating process in South Africa. The bill stipulates that some of the funds should be given to previously banned organizations - like the ANC - for infrastructure development. But no allocations have yet been made, and Washington is considering requests on how the funds should be apportioned.
(See accompanying article on De Klerk's career, Page 3.)