WASHINGTON — Washington. -- If you look only at the headlines, the steps taken by South Africa's President F.W. de Klerk since 1989 to end racial and political oppressions seem remarkably good.
We've seen the stories of a brave Afrikaner leader moving defiantly against obdurate racists to knock down the pillars of an apartheid system that has enabled some 5 million whites to live in privilege while they imposed brutal laws limiting the places where 28 million blacks and a couple of million Asians and mixed-race ''coloreds'' could eat, live, ride a bus, swim in the ocean, own land, get health care, go to school or even be buried.
There is bitter irony, indeed, in the fact that under worldwide pressures and sanctions Mr. de Klerk has been pushing for racial inclusion and greater justice while President Bush and his advisers are exploiting the politics of racial polarization and hatred in the United States. It encourages a facile observation that the world community ought to lift sanctions off the de Klerk government and put them on the Bush administration.
But before anyone leaps to lift sanctions off South Africa, let them note solemnly that the highly publicized legislative manipulations in South Africa have produced very little change in the ways of life of that country.
Monday's repeal by Parliament of the Population Registration Act was grossly overplayed by the American press, which buried the reality that 30 million citizens will go on with their lives circumscribed because the government has classified them as blacks, coloreds, Indian or whatever. Only babies born after the repeal will not have an official badge of race and its limitations stamped on them. It will take a new constitution, which take until 1995 or later, to lift this curse off 30 million non-white people.
Mr. de Klerk also won headlines for approving the integration of ''whites only'' public schools. What didn't get bannered is the stipulation that at least 72 percent of the white parents must approve the admission of non-white children. So there hasn't been much school integration.
Much hoopla attended repeal of the Group Areas Act which officially segregated neighborhoods and gave the government authority to take choice land away from non-whites and turn it into all-white communities. No whites have given any land back, and blacks, coloreds and Asians have not been encouraged to move back into their old neighborhoods. Repeal of the Land Acts technically removes the classification of 87 percent of the land as territory that only whites could own, but blacks, who make up an overwhelming 68 percent of the population, are still limited to the 13 percent of undesirable scrublands.
The most important thing to remember for President Bush or anyone else thinking of lifting sanctions is that the black people of South Africa still have absolutely no voice, no vote, in the political affairs of that society. More than a few black political prisoners are still locked up in South Africa's wretched prisons.
I can and do applaud what President de Klerk has done. In the context of South Africa, he has produced two remarkable years. I want to encourage him. But before sanctions are lifted, the United States and the world ought to demand more in the way of real change, especially the sharing of political power, and not be dazzled by the publicity surrounding bold promises.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.