De Klerk, Mandela visits this week focus Britain's choices over future relations with South Africa

JOE'S hand-scrawled placard said, "De Klerk Go Home." And the young black had plenty to add about the visit here by South Africa's white president. Standing near the steps of the South African Embassy, he called it "an outrage." Prime Minister John Major had "no good reason to see him." But although the words sounded tough, I thought the delivery lacked conviction.

Frederick de Klerk, I reminded Joe, was promising to abolish racial separation by June. Wasn't that enough?

He conceded that progress had been made, but insisted: "Sanctions must stay until the last black is free."

As he rejoined a small group of placard-carrying youths, I realized why his protest seemed tepid. The embassy stands at the edge of Trafalgar Square, traditional venue for protests against apartheid. Over the years, South African diplomats have often had to watch thousands of demonstrators demanding an end to apartheid. Now the protest was down to Joe and his friends.

Britain's relations with South Africa have been changing rapidly. Before I stopped to chat with Joe, an official inside the embassy told me: "Britain once demanded that a wind of change should blow through my country. It is blowing now."

When I suggested that protests might erupt again if President De Klerk slackened the pace of reform, the official said: "That won't happen. And John Major is going to help us."

The British prime minister's sympathies seem to lie with De Klerk, but his calendar this week had space for another South African leader: Nelson Mandela, Deputy President of the African National Congress.

"There are no plans for De Klerk and Mandela to meet," a British diplomat said, "but for us the two visits are in the same box. We are looking beyond apartheid, and everything depends on those two gentlemen being able to work together."

The phrase "wind of change" was coined during a visit to Africa 30 years ago by Harold Macmillan, a former British prime minister. Instead of bending to the prevailing political breeze, South Africa's whites took refuge in racial separation.

The West progressively tightened economic sanctions on the apartheid state. That policy began to take hold in the mid-1980s; De Klerk now wants Mr. Major to lift sanctions - quickly.

But Mr. Mandela wants sanctions to stay until he has hammered out with De Klerk a political deal for the future. For now, the balance of persuasion seems to lie with De Klerk.

In February, Major remarked that South Africa should be allowed to resume sports contacts with other countries. The European Community has already voted to lift sanctions, leaving the date open. Last month the influential House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee urged an end to sanctions.

Perhaps the most persuasive voices belong to leaders of the banking and business communities whom De Klerk and Mandela were both scheduled (separately) to see. A growing number of British companies are more confident about prospects for South Africa once sanctions are lifted.

The director of a company building a new factory near Johannesburg said: "Getting rid of apartheid will produce a surge of economic growth in South Africa, and customers will be willing to buy. But it is absolutely crucial that once the racial barriers come down, blacks and whites work together."

He added: "The blacks have to be given equality - real equality. Without it, lifting sanctions will amount to very little."

And that, I remembered, was almost exactly what young Joe had told me outside the South African Embassy.

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