THE abolition of statutory race classification, which condemned three generations of black South Africans to legalized inferiority, has revived hopes for a political settlement and invited a review of economic sanctions. The June 17 move, promised by President Frederik de Klerk when he legalized the African National Congress (ANC) in February 1990, brought promises from the United States and Japan that sanctions would be reviewed.
Mr. De Klerk predicted June 18 that all-party talks on setting up a negotiating forum for a new constitution would be under way by the end of the year and that negotiations would proceed under the present government's authority, allowing for transitional arrangements.
But ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela repeated the ANC's demands for a transfer of power to a sovereign interim government and a democratically elected constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution.
The ANC last month suspended a decision to take part in all-party talks and constitutional negotiations because the government failed to meet its demands for ending political violence, which has claimed nearly 2,000 lives over the past 12 months. But contact between the ANC and the government in working groups and other forums has continued.
The ANC is expected to take part in an all-party conference on violence convened by the churches in Johannesburg June 22. The government and the Inkatha Freedom Party have said they also will attend.
The ANC is expected to make crucial decisions about its future strategy on negotiations and economic sanctions at a landmark national conference to be held in Durban in the first week of July.
The repeal of the hated Population Registration Act was welcomed by leaders of the country's 31 million black and mixed-race citizens and by the majority of whites.
Only the right-wing Conservative Party, representing about 3 percent of the population, voted against scrapping the act.
"Today, the vast majority of our population are rejoicing, because they accept the inevitability of an irreversible process of liberation from racial discrimination," De Klerk told a joint sitting of the segregated Parliament in Cape Town.
The repeal of the race classification laws followed by two weeks the repeal of the Land Acts and the Group Areas Act, which enforced residential segregation and preserved 87 percent of the land for whites who comprise only 13 percent of the population.
More than 3 million black South Africans have been forcibly removed under the two acts.
"One cannot build security on injustice, and there is no doubt that the Group Areas and other laws that determined the tenure of the land - as well as the Population Registration Act - did lead to injustice," De Klerk told Parliament June 18. But he stopped short of admitting apartheid was evil and apologizing for the wrongs of the past as church and black political leaders have urged him to do.
In its 41 years of operation, the law assaulted black South Africans' human dignity and divided families whose members sometimes found themselves forced into different racial categories. On the borderline between the seven mixed-race categories and "white" lay a gray area, where race often had to be determined by a humiliating examination of hair texture and fingernails.
The ANC welcomed the repeal, but expressed reservations about the fact that the race classification provisions of the act would still apply in order to allow the racially based Constitution, which provides for three segregated houses of Parliament, to continue functioning.
"Nothing short of the complete abolition of race classification - and all its negative effects - will be acceptable to us," the ANC said after Parliament repealed the Act.
De Klerk said apartheid was now "history," and he called on the ANC finally to abandon its armed struggle, which it suspended nine months ago, and join negotiations on a nonracial constitution.
He conceded that statutory race discrimination would remain until the present Constitution was replaced and that the economic consequences of apartheid would remain for some time.
"But we have taken a giant step by eliminating discrimination in our legislation," he said later on state-run television. "It's now on top of the agenda to bring about a new constitution through negotiation," he said. "We do not plan to continue apartheid in another form."
In Washington, President Bush hinted he would order a review of US sanctions contained in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.
That act requires South Africa to meet four out of five conditions before the president can ask Congress to change the law. If Congress agrees all five conditions have been met, the president can unilaterally repeal the law.
A US State Department official said South Africa had met four of the five conditions.
But the question of the release of political prisoners has yet to be resolved.
South Africa claims it has released all political prisoners, but human rights groups say 600 to 800 remain behind bars.
A US diplomat said the prisoner issue was not insurmountable and could be resolved by the end of June.
"We could see the sanctions lifted as early as next month," the diplomat said.
In Tokyo, the Japanese Foreign Ministry indicated Japan would also review sanctions.