De Klerk in Washington

September 26, 1990

South African President F. W. De Klerk's visit to Washington changes nothing. He made a positive impression, pledging that apartheid will end. He had made a positive impression pledging that before. He came having achieved two of five conditions set out in this country's 1986 law, four of which are required for ending sanctions. Nothing changed while he was here. He deserves encouragement to complete the job, and received it.

The split between President Bush and most Democratic members of Congress, particularly the Black Caucus, is over whether to call the cup half-full or half-empty. President Bush is cheering Mr. De Klerk on; the Black Caucus is skeptical.

But basic questions about the wisdom of sanctions are not up for debate. Congress settled the answers, as far as U.S. policy goes, in 1986. It is fair to say that Mr. De Klerk had no illusions on that score and President Bush allowed him none. Mr. Bush made a point of saying he is against moving the goal posts back, should South Africa meet four of the five conditions. He did not advocate moving them forward.

By holding out hope of ending sanctions, Mr. Bush strengthened Mr. De Klerk against the Conservative opposition to him in the white minority in South Africa. Mr. Bush allowed photographs of the two together, but only after he had done the same for Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress leader. Only Mr. Mandela's earlier trip made Mr. De Klerk's presidential visit possible. That is not lost on South African politicians, white or black.

Mr. De Klerk may no longer be the pariah he was, thanks to de facto partnership with Mr. Mandela. Nor does he have the respectability he craves. He knows how to get it. What remains is release of all political prisoners, end of emergency law and an end to laws segregating residence by race. Any two of those three will bring a start -- only a start -- at ending sanctions in phases. The violence between supporters of ANC and the rival movement Inkatha, which is the rationale for partial retention of emergency law, jeopardizes constitutional talks and the end of sanctions. Mr. De Klerk knows that now; he knew it before.

All in all, it was a successful visit but little more than a ritual. Mr. De Klerk's challenges are at home, not abroad. They are daunting. But there is no doubt as to what they are.

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