WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday he is convinced the drive toward ending apartheid in South Africa is "irreversible" and that "the time has come" for the United States to "encourage and assist" the emerging new nation.
After more than two hours of talks at the White House with South African President F. W. de Klerk, Mr. Bush said he also made clear he will seek to lift economic sanctions on the white, minority-ruled government as soon as the minimum conditions set down by Congress have been met.
"I do not believe in moving the goal posts," Mr. Bush said in a joint appearance with Mr. de Klerk at a South Lawn ceremony that followed the talks. "I think all Americans recognize that President de Klerk is courageously trying to change things."
For his part, Mr. de Klerk, the first South African head of state invited to the White House in more than four decades, said he interpreted the warm reception from Mr. Bush as a signal that South Africa's days as a pariah are over.
"In normalizing our country's situation with regard to the international community . . . your acknowledgment of the progress which we have made, and your encouragement with regard to the progress which we are committed to make in the future, is for us extremely important," Mr. de Klerk told President Bush.
Mindful that their meeting came despite protests from some Americans -- including about 200 demonstrators marching and chanting on the other side of the White House -- Mr. de Klerk sought to reassure those who argue that the continued violence in South Africa shows change is not coming fast enough.
"We will not turn back," Mr. de Klerk insisted. "We are proceeding irreversibly on the road to a new South Africa, where justice, the guarantees of constitutional democracy and the rule of law will bring lasting peace and prosperity to all our people."
But Representative Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif., an author of the 1986 legislation that imposed the sanctions over the opposition of the Reagan administration, in which Mr.Bush served as vice president, contended during the demonstrations that "South Africa is no more compassionate now than it was two years ago . . . or six months ago."
Mr. Dellums said that none of the five conditions set forth by the legislation for lifting the sanctions have been met -- except for the release of Nelson Mandela, the black leader who had been jailed for his efforts toward majority rule.
The Congressional Black Caucus, which Mr. Dellums chairs, canceled a meeting with Mr. de Klerk to demonstrate its disappointment that more hasn't been achieved. But Mr. Dellums and some other black lawmakers planned to meet individually with Mr. de Klerk today.
The Bush administration argues that at least two conditions of the legislation have been met, pointing to new freedoms granted to once-banned anti-apartheid organizations -- such as Mr. Mandela's African National Congress -- and talks now under way on a framework for a new constitution. They also note that the de Klerk government and the ANC have agreed to a process for releasing the remaining political prisoners, the third condition.
As a fourth condition, the 1986 law demands repeal of the Group Areas Act and the Population Registration Act, two major elements of the apartheid system that Mr. de Klerk has promised to write out of the new constitution.
But the continuing violence in South Africa's Natal Province remains a troublesome thorn in the process. It has prompted Mr. de Klerk to maintain a state of emergency there, which the 1986 law insists must be lifted before U.S. sanctions can be eased. Further, some South Africans charge that whites are stirring up trouble there between rival black factions.
President Bush raised the issue with Mr. de Klerk at their meeting yesterday and was assured that the South African government is increasing security in the region and applying it evenhandedly, according to Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen.