South Africa's Progress

SOUTH Africa's march toward majority rule is taking several encouraging steps.

Within the past five days, the country has seen:

* A breakthrough in secret negotiations between Nelson Mandela, who heads the African National Congress (ANC), and Gen. Constand Viljoen, leader of the the white conservative Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF). As first reported in the Monitor on Friday, each party agreed to recognize the other as fellow South Africans whose differences must be settled through negotiation.

* Parliamentary approval of a plan for a multiracial committee to oversee national elections next April - the first balloting in which blacks participate on a one-person, one-vote basis.

* Mr. Mandela, in a speech Friday at the United Nations, asking an end to economic sanctions. Within hours, federal, state, and local officials in the United States began to develop plans to repeal rules banning investment in or procurement from South African businesses. Chase Manhattan Bank is expected to announce today that it will lift a debt ``standstill'' it imposed in 1985. Reversing this move made eight years ago, one of the most effective sanctions levied during the '80s, will make it easier for South Africa to seek commercial loans.

The ANC's talks with the AVF stand a good chance of substantially reducing white right-wing violence during the election campaign and the five-year period of rule by an interim government. Less clear is whether the agreement can help bring Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Inkatha Freedom Party's leader, back to the table. Inkatha has been the ANC's chief, often-violent rival in the black townships and seeks an autonomous home for its followers.

With the political and economic momentum building toward April's vote, it is critical that candidates keep expectations realistic. With some exceptions, the effects of lifting sanctions will be slow to come. Money managers will shift investments only after they are confident of the government's stability. The ANC's talks with the AVF have helped on this issue, as would similar talks with Inkatha.

Political stability during the transition, however, must not come at the cost of a multiethnic, democratic South Africa. As Mandela noted in his UN address, ``We can reject an ethnic solution without rejecting the basic demands of a people wanting a particular region in which to run their own affairs.''

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