Washington. As the status of blacks in America erodes, ever so subtly, we watch in both approval and bitter irony the strides South Africa is taking away from the most brutal forms of racism.
Frederik W. de Klerk, South Africa's president, is moving relentlessly to dismantle his country's racial prison of apartheid, even in the face of angry architects of a police-state apparatus that was designed to guarantee white superiority and special privilege in perpetuity.
We have seen in Mr. de Klerk, Mikhail Gorbachev, Presidents Reagan and Bush stark evidence of how much societies can be changed, for good or ill, by a single leader. It is not too late for Mr. Bush to learn something from Mr. de Klerk.
The passions for eternal white domination in South Africa are infinitely stronger than the emotions against ''affirmative action'' in the United States, but while Mr. Bush cries ''no quotas,'' Mr. de Klerk stands up against the racist tide in the land of apartheid.
He legalized the African National Congress, the Communist Party and the Pan-Africanist Congress. He freed from prison, or welcomed home from exile, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other representatives of the black majority. It seems only a matter of time before he releases all political prisoners.
He forced repeal of the 37-year-old law requiring the segregation of blacks from whites in restaurants, buses, theaters, hotels and other public accommodations. Some racial integration of schools has taken place, and pressure is on to end racism in the delivery of medical care.
And Friday, even as supporters of apartheid walked out, Mr. de Klerk asked Parliament to repeal two of the most onerous of all racist laws -- the Group Areas Act, which prescribes separate ghettoes for blacks, Coloreds and Asians; and the Lands Acts, which set aside 87 per cent of the best, most arable land for the white minority, leaving 13 per cent of scrublands for the black majority.
He also proposed eventual repeal of the Population Registration Act under which every citizen is given a racial classification that determines his or her legal and social status. (The racists are trying to exploit reports that Mr. de Klerk's son plans to marry a woman classified as ''Colored.'')
Incredible! As startling as the dismantling of the Berlin Wall! As exhilarating -- if it lasts -- as Mr. Gorbachev's removal of shackles from East Germany, Poland, Hungary!
Mr. de Klerk is finding, as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson did in America, that people respond to leaders who dare to ask them to rise above bigotry and greed. Reports indicate that most South African whites welcome Mr. de Klerk's leadership. Not only are they tired of murderous racial warfare, they welcome this quest for legal fairness and economic justice. Thoughtful whites seem to await the grant of the ballot to blacks.
I say hooray to Mr. de Klerk and hope that his stance in favor of racial justice and political democracy will be honored by his parliament and people. That would enable me to advocate support instead of sanctions, which would make me a very happy man.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.