Apartheid's End

June 18, 1991

The parliament of South Africa has dismantled the last pillar of apartheid law. The Population Registration Act of 1950 -- which required every South African to be registered as white, black, colored (mixed ancestry) or Asian -- is repealed. But nothing has replaced it. The change in law affects babies about to be born, who will not be registered. Everyone else already is. The rolls are not erased.

Racial classification combined with segregation laws gave most of South Africa to its fortunate minority and denied most of it to its majority. All but the registration law were already repealed. In the transitional timetable of President F. W. De Klerk, what happens next must be a negotiation of a new constitution to replace that of 1983.

Assuming a future voting age of 18, the end of registry for the newborn sets a deadline of 18 years to adopt the next constitution. Achievement in three years seems more likely. In the meantime, apartheid's end abolishes such anomalies as legally splitting families whose members are registered as racially different. But the blacks who could not vote before, still cannot. The Asians and Coloreds still vote for representatives to their racially distinct and powerless chambers of parliament.

The State Department says that South Africa has now met all the conditions for lifting U.S. sanctions under the 1986 U.S. law except for release of all political prisoners. The South African government says that hardly any are left. The African National Congress claims about 1,000. Their difference is over whether someone convicted of a violent act for a political motive is a political or criminal prisoner. A decision whether to maintain U.S. sanctions right now, which President Bush promises to analyze carefully, will turn on the U.S. answer to that definition.

But in any case, as black African governments' resistance to contact with South Africa crumbles, the end of effective sanctions is near. It is a good bet that South African athletes will enter the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona behind their own flag, by black African Olympic committees' choice. The country's isolation is almost over.

And yet the hardest remains to be done. While Mr. De Klerk has good communications with Nelson Mandela and the ANC, the means of negotiating a new constitution as well as its provisions remain undecided. The violence among black ethnic and political groups and distrust between blacks and the police are impediments to dialogue. What cannot be doubted is that Mr. De Klerk and the majority of his National Party mean to go through with it. They have burned their bridges.

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