THE leaves are beginning to fall rapidly in this tree-lined capital city as winter approaches, but at the bustling Department of Foreign Affairs in the imposing Union Buildings, spring is only just beginning. "There is a definite opening up and a new acceptance of South Africa internationally," says Coen Bezuidenhout, a foreign ministry official who recently returned from four years at the South African mission in Washington.
In a dramatic reversal of South Africa's pariah status for the past four decades, Foreign Affairs Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha told Parliament last week that South Africa would establish diplomatic relations with 15 new countries by the end of this year. Planning of the new missions, mainly in Africa and Eastern Europe, is already far advanced and some - like Hungary - have already opened.
The new outward thrust, made possible by the political changes initiated by President Frederik de Klerk, is largely trade driven, but it holds many political and diplomatic rewards.
Missions in the process of being established include the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria; Ivory Coast and Togo in West Africa; and Morocco, Madagascar, and the thriving Indian Ocean island-state of Mauritius.
"The opening of these new missions is proof that the whole situation is normalizing under De Klerk," says Mr. Bezuidenhout, who has recently been appointed media officer of a hastily created VIP section of the foreign ministry to handle an anticipated spate of foreign visitors in the next six months.
The biggest breakthrough for Pretoria is the establishment of diplomatic ties with Moscow. Other African states that could soon agree to exchange diplomats include Zambia, Angola, Nigeria, Kenya, and Egypt. Pretoria already has trade missions in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, diplomatic relations with Malawi, Swaziland, and Lesotho, and representative status in Namibia and Botswana.
Most African states appear keen to trade with South Africa because import and transport costs will be cheaper.
Mr. Botha said recently that South Africa's trade with Africa doubled over the past two years to about US$4 billion annually.
Pretoria's breakthroughs have come despite protest from leaders of the African National Congress, who have cautioned that it is too early to reward Pretoria with diplomatic exchanges.
Most of the new diplomatic appointments are for whites. A few Indian and mixed-race South Africans have received senior postings. There are no black South African ambassadors.
Plans are at an early stage for possible visits this year by several prime ministers, including Britain's John Major, Canada's Brian Mulroney, Australia's Bob Hawke, and New Zealand's Jim Bolger.
"The measure of the turnaround becomes apparent if one considers that the last official visit to South Africa by a head of state was the late Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1974," says a Western diplomat.
The red-carpet treatment currently being meted out to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is a measure of Pretoria's longing to rejoin the international community.
With the demise of economic and air sanctions in Europe and Africa - and hopes that United States sanctions will start to fall by midyear - South African businessmen are looking forward to being received openly again in Western capitals.
"If only the foreign investment side of it would come right we might be able to afford to travel abroad," says a cynical white resident, noting the depressed value of the South African currency.