THE sight of President Frederik de Klerk, for nearly two decades a key figure in the apartheid regime, standing at the foot of Mahatma Gandhi's statue here and extolling his commitment to peace reminds one of the speed of South Africa's metamorphosis. Seldom, if ever, has a leader performed such a complete political somersault and had so many victims of the system he once served singing his praises.
``We stand here next to the statue of a great man,'' proclaimed Mr. De Klerk from the steps of the town hall sporting a colorful wreath of flowers - an Indian symbol of peace - around his neck.
``He is one of the greatest men in the history of the Indian nation ... who was determined to resist political violence and intimidation.
``What would the great Gandhi have said about the intimidation of the African National Congress [ANC] and other parties in this election?'' De Klerk asked during the second of 18 speeches in a two-day election roadshow in troubled Natal Province. ``I say Gandhi would have said this intimidation is a form of violence, and we must stand up against it.''
Several Indians in the crowd said Gandhi would have supported De Klerk's efforts.
Gandhi, a name that invokes reverence in ANC circles, has become a symbol here of resistance to another form of intimidation: apartheid. But the irony escaped De Klerk and his new-found converts.
Gandhi came to the British colony of Natal in 1888 as a young lawyer and remained for 25 years. One of his most formative experiences, shortly after arriving here, occurred when he was thrown off a train after he refused an order to leave the first-class section because it was reserved for whites only.
In 1894, he founded the Natal Indian Congress, which remains a mainstay of the ANC today. During his stay, he launched campaigns of passive resistance against anti-Indian discrimination in the Boer Republic of Transvaal in 1906, the colonial regime in Natal in 1908, and the government of the Union of South Africa in 1913.
Now, De Klerk led the charge against discrimination. Whether trying to persuade white businessmen that South Africa would not go the way of other African countries or leading an Indian crowd in trying to shout down ANC demonstrators, De Klerk's message is simple: We in the National Party have had the courage to admit our mistakes and embark on a new course that will benefit all South Africans and build a new nation.
``Never again ... will we return to any kind of apartheid or discrimination against racial minorities,'' De Klerk tells his audiences.
In Wentworth - a working-class, mixed-race ``colored'' area - De Klerk had a rapturous reception. Women cried and sang with joy as he joined hands with ``colored'' people on the stage singing the Bette Midler favorite: ``From a distance.''
``It is the first time I have heard a white man leader talking in favor of the colored people and giving us hope for the future,'' said Scott Norkie, an artisan from the Wentworth community. ``If I vote for the National Party, it will be because of De Klerk.''
In Verulam, an Indian neighborhood of Durban, one ANC veteran could no longer contain himself when De Klerk denounced the ANC as ``breakers.'' ``We broke your back,'' shouted Ahmed Qono, a veteran ANC official who spent three decades in exile.
Mr. Qono has a point. De Klerk is at his weakest when he claims credit for wringing the neck of apartheid. The perseverance of millions of black South Africans forced the white government to change direction.
What is remarkable is that De Klerk reformed the system with enthusiasm, and seems as liberated as the oppressed by the emerging product.