RESIDENT Frederik de Klerk is reconsidering his government's refusal to return the land of some 3.5 million victims of apartheid, church leaders say. The surprise decision comes only days after the government unveiled sweeping land reforms but ruled out the restitution of land to victims of forced removals on the grounds that it would be "impractical."
The government's hard-line stand on restitution created a heated political row and has been widely condemned by anti-apartheid groups, human rights lawyers, and civil rights workers.
The apparent turnabout came after a two-hour meeting between Mr. de Klerk and an eight-person church delegation led by the Rev. Frank Chikane, general-secretary of the ecumenical South African Council of Churches and Dr. Louw Alberts of the establishment Dutch Reformed Church.
"Consideration was given to the feasibility of land restitution and how far back this should be instituted," said a statement by the leaders of the church delegation.
"Indications were that the 3.5 million people who had been forcibly removed during the last 30 years should be given first consideration," the statement said.
The church delegates, who attended a watershed conference in Rustenburg last November, had asked to see De Klerk to discuss the Rustenburg Declaration in which the Dutch Reformed Church, the main Afrikaner church, formally apologized for apartheid.
That conference brought together - for the first time - leaders of Afrikaner, anti-apartheid, charismatic, and independent churches.
The declaration branded as sinful and evil "the heretical policy of apartheid which has led to extreme suffering for so many in our land" and called on the government "to join us in a public confession of guilt and a statement of repentance for wrongs perpetrated over the years."
The church leaders, who met De Klerk on Thursday, praised him for the way he handled the meeting.
The president's office declined to comment on the specifics but said the meeting had been constructive and cordial - a sharp contrast to the tone of such meetings during the era of former President P. W. Botha.
But delegates who attended Thursday's meeting with De Klerk said he had accepted the spirit of what the church leaders meant by "restitution."
"The state president conceded the principle of restitution," said Johan Heyns, former moderator of the influential Dutch Reformed Church, who was part of the delegation.
De Klerk, who is a lawyer, had made a distinction between what the word meant to a jurist, on the one hand, and a theologian, on the other, Professor Heyns said.
The president had argued that the founders of apartheid had had good intentions but that the system had become warped in its implementation and had not led to the intended goals. It was not "sinful" in its conception, and therefore "restitution" was not appropriate in the juridical sense.
De Klerk stopped short of identifying himself and his government with the Dutch Reformed Church's apology for apartheid, Heyns said.
De Klerk told the church leaders that apologies and analyzing the past could "go too far." He said he was more concerned with righting past wrongs and concentrating on the future than analyzing the past.
De Klerk vowed that he would not introduce apartheid in disguise.
"The state president has said he takes seriously what we have said, and we hope it makes a difference," Mr. Chikane said.
But the issue of apologizing for apartheid is clearly a highly sensitive one in government ranks.
Three weeks ago, Deputy Foreign Minister Leon Wessels became the first government legislator to make a formal apology for apartheid in Parliament.
"Apartheid was a terrible mistake that blighted our land," he said.
"With the benefit of hindsight we know that we have hurt our fellow countrymen.... We had failed to listen to the laughing and the crying of our people.... That must never happen again. I am sorry for having been so hard of hearing for so long, so indifferent."
Mr. Wessels' apology was hailed by anti-apartheid groups, but his example has not been followed by any senior government officials.
When officials have been asked by reporters whether they are prepared to apologize for apartheid, they have replied that the best form of apology is to right the wrongs of the past.
Heyns, who is presently assessor of the General Synodical Commission of the Dutch Reformed Church, said De Klerk had carefully studied the Rustenburg Declaration and agreed with its general content.
But he had distanced himself from aspects of the declaration that indicated church support for specific political models, such as "one person, one vote in a unitary state."
De Klerk said he could agree politically with such a model, but did not deem it appropriate for the church to become involved in specifics.
Church leaders who attended the meeting with De Klerk said it had set the scene for a new and constructive relationship between church and state.
De Klerk told them that he saw a central role for the church in the building of the new South Africa and that he would listen carefully to their message.
The indications of a rethinking of the emotional land issue follow publication of land reforms just last week which scrap race discrimination but reject returning it to victims of apartheid's forced removals.
Aninka Claasens, a member of the National Land Committee, which monitors and resists forced removals, disclosed last week that an earlier government draft of its land policy had advocated a more flexible approach to reparation for forced removals.
This suggested a split within the Cabinet over the question of how far the government should go in making reparations for the apartheid era, she said.
Ms. Claasens, who was also a member of the African National Congress Land Commission, said it was vital that future land policy should be founded on restitution and that disputes over land should be settled by land claims courts.
Failure to resolve the land issue could lead to nationwide resistance, she said.