Cape Town, South Africa. WITHIN A FEW MONTHS, South Africa will be rid of the legal planks on which the government built its 40-year-old race-based system of apartheid.
By the end of the current legislative term, Parliament will have repealed the last major apartheid laws on the statute books, including the Population Registration Act of 1950. That measure formed the basis for all other race-related policies of the apartheid era.
The latest changes were announced early this month by President Frederik W. de Klerk, whose reform policies have transformed his country's image from that of a brutal racist system to that of a newly emerging democracy. Mr. de Klerk proposed -- and Parliament will inevitably approve -- the scrapping of the Population Registration Act, the Group Areas ,, Act and the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936.
Together with the Separate Amenities Act, which was repealed last year, these laws underpinned a much-despised system that used race to determine where a person could live, work, eat, go to school, go to the doctor, be born and be buried.
All apartheid laws depended on population registration, a system of classifying people at birth according to their race. For that reason, the end of this act has symbolic importance, but it does not mean the end of apartheid or even the end of racial classification.
As explained by Mr. de Klerk's cabinet ministers, the repeal means no one born in South Africa in the future will carry the stigma of being legally classified by race. But those who already have been classified will remain classified just as before, and their names will remain on racially segregated voter rolls until a new constitution is drafted for South Africa. So the repeal of the act will have little if any practical effect for most people in South Africa.
"If we assume, as most people are assuming, that we'll have a new constitution in three or four years, then really for a child born tomorrow or the next day, it's not going to make much difference," said Zach de Beer, chairman of the Democratic Party, the liberal opposition party in Parliament. "But the symbolic importance of repealing the Population Registration Act remains."
He said the Democratic Party had urged exactly that action by the government, which is controlled by Mr. de Klerk's National Party.
Government ministers said they saw no reason to retain the population act this year since they are committed to ending racial discrimination in South Africa. But they said they didn't think it possible to erase the racial classification system itself because it is inextricably linked to the current constitution, which denies blacks a vote in national elections. When this constitution goes -- and virtually everyone now says it will -- race classification will go along with it.
"Black people do not have the vote in the central government system at present, and that change to give them the vote, as we are committed to do, is a basic and a fundamental matter of a new constitution," said Gerrit Viljoen, minister of constitutional development.
The question now before the government and all other major political parties is this: When, how and by whom will the new document be drafted?
Mr. de Klerk's government has set the stage for constitutional negotiations over the past year by legalizing black political groups that had been banned for decades and releasing their top leaders from prison, where they sat for decades because of the government's old policy of stifling dissent.
The African National Congress is the most prominent of the newly legalized groups and a key player in the negotiating process which is already in its early stages. But despite a good working relationship between Mr. de Klerk and ANC leader Nelson Mandela, the government and the ANC are still sparring over steps that must be taken prior to the actual negotiations where the constitution will be written.
The ANC wants all political prisoners released and all political exiles returned to the country first. Meantime, it wants a conference of all political parties in the country to sit down and draw up the guidelines for the constitutional talks. The government agrees with that idea, but it is adamantly opposed to some of the ANC's other ideas, such as an interim government to run the country while the constitution is being drafted.
Officials say there is no way they will hand over the government to any body but a democratically elected one. The ANC says the government wants to be both referee and player.
Most analysts believe the process of sorting out these differences and actually sitting down and writing a constitution will take a few years. Then the new South Africa will really emerge.
Even after it emerges, however, many problems of the old South Africa are expected to remain and to plague the new, democratically elected, nonracial government that's expected to develop. Sketching the outlines for a new society is only Step 1. Then the new government must settle down to the task of tackling the legacy of apartheid -- poverty, unemployment, poor education among blacks, inadequate housing and a society that has grown accustomed to a culture of brutal violence.
Jerelyn Eddings is chief of The Sun's Johannesburg bureau.