Dismantling Apartheid

February 04, 1991

A year ago, President F. W. de Klerk dropped a bombshell on opening the white parliament by announcing the legalization of outlawed organizations including the African National Congress. When he repeated the performance Friday, by announcing as his legislative program an end to the legal foundations of apartheid, the ANC was out in the street on a one-day national strike demanding an immediate share in political power for black people.

Scrapping old laws of residential and land ownership segregation will not make one black person richer or happier or better housed the next day. The results of generations of those laws going back to 1913 will still be in place and will remain a major subject for future, multiracial South African politics.

Yet when Mr. de Klerk said, "The South African statute book will be devoid within months of the remnants of racially discriminatory laws, which have become known as the cornerstones of apartheid," he was pushing forward his undoubted commitment to reform and change. The Conservative Party of die-hard apartheid, now the official opposition in parliament, walked out. There can be no better evidence of Mr. de Klerk's credibility.

Mr. de Klerk and the ANC opposition are agreed on steps to be taken and fundamentally opposed on the sequence of those steps. Mr. De Klerk wants his government to stay in power and supervise the changes, and for constitutional revision to be drafted before multiracial voting takes place. The ANC wants an interim regime, and universal voting for the people who will draft a new constitution.

The trickiest change that Mr. de Klerk announced Friday is the end of the Population Registration Act. After its repeal, no babies will be registered by race, which will render future school and residence segregation legally unenforceable. But the people who have been registered -- those already born -- remain registered until further change. That will keep white voting white until a decision to end it.

This is certainly a major step in the right direction, as the White House swiftly said. By summer, South Africa may have met the conditions for ending U.S. sanctions in the 1986 law. As recently as Thursday, ANC leader Nelson Mandela asked the international community to maintain sanctions until blacks have voted in elections, which is not a condition in the law although it would have sympathizers in this country. South Africa is making undeniable progress that will soon reopen debate in this country about ending sanctions, which is the penultimate stage before ending them.

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