SOME AMERICAN opponents of apartheid have criticized President Bush for giving such a warm welcome to President F.W. de Klerk of South Africa.
Praise is a mistake, they argue, when the basic laws of apartheid are still in place and the hope of an early South African transition to democracy is clouded by violence.
Concern is understandable. The optimism that glowed in South Africa a few months ago has dimmed. The United States must be watchful. But if the critics believe that it can help by coolness toward de Klerk, I think they misunderstand the situation in South Africa.
De Klerk freed Nelson Mandela in February and ended the ban on anti-apartheid political movements for one fundamental reason. He had decided that the system of keeping all power in the hands of the white minority did not work -- work in the sense of producing a stable or a prosperous society.
De Klerk said he wanted to negotiate a new, constitutional system. Since then he has held numerous meetings with the African National Congress, and many obstacles have been cleared away. Unless one thinks that the word negotiation means capitulation rather than real political bargaining, there seems no reason to doubt that he meant what he said.
Nelson Mandela told me in March, as he has told many others, "I am convinced that de Klerk is an honest man." Then Mandela added the crucial point: "Whether he will be able to deliver the goods is a different question."
That is what is being tested in South Africa right now: whether de Klerk can deliver the goods of a genuine constitutional settlement. Delivering the goods means persuading those whites who control the apparatus of power in the state, especially the police and the army, to accept movement toward democratic control.
The legacy of apartheid makes it a daunting task. For 40 years the state relied on brute force to deny most of its citizens their elementary rights: the right to vote, to live with their families, to find work where they could. Those who dissented were silenced, imprisoned, tortured, killed.
Performing such tasks inevitably corrupted and brutalized the security forces. Today they include many who are committed to the extreme right, utterly opposed to change.
In another sense, too, the legacy of apartheid is coming back to haunt its creators. A principal strategy of the state was to keep the black majority weak by dividing it. Thus language groups and so-called "tribes" were emphasized, and black politicians cultivated in separate "homelands."
The violent conflict that has tormented the country in recent months stems at least in part from those divisions. Gatsha Buthelezi, who heads the KwaZulu homeland and the Zulu-based Inkatha movement, wants power in any new system. Strong evidence indicates that Inkatha people have initiated the fighting in many places.
It is also true that the police have sided with Inkatha in conflicts with the ANC, refusing to arrest known Inkatha killers. That is a legacy of the divide-and-rule policy and of the decades of propaganda against the ANC. And now there is reason to believe that right-wing whites, perhaps from the police, are plotting some of the violence.
The challenge to de Klerk is to get the security forces under control. He plainly understands that. One of the first things he did in office was to remove the securocrats from places of political power where his predecessor, P.W. Botha, had put them. He appointed a judicial commission that condemned the police for killing peaceful marchers in Sebokeng.
In this situation, Bush used de Klerk's visit to send a message of approval for his movement toward a constitutional settlement. And the message got through. The Citizen, a right-center paper in Johannesburg, headlined the Bush-de Klerk meeting: "U.S. will back S.A. change."
Just as de Klerk has enormous problems, so does Mandela. Blacks are naturally impatient for change, and outraged at the killing of hundreds of innocent people in suspicious circumstances. To persuade them to await the workings of political negotiation, as Mandela must, is extremely difficult.
The hope of South Africa rests to an extraordinary degree now on those two men, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. Both face tremendous challenges, and American policy should surely be to give them support. By all signs that is what the policy is.