President Bush was premature in lifting sanctions against South Africa. Given a little more time, the Pretoria government headed by F.W. De Klerk and the African National Congress headed by Nelson Mandela seemed destined to settle the question of releasing all political prisoners, the only one of five preconditions still in dispute. It would have been better if the South Africans, black and white, had worked out this matter among themselves.
Nevertheless, U.S. action to terminate the psychological, political and economic isolation of South Africa was a recognition of reality. Just as the ANC has conceded it must be more flexible to remain relevant, so this country should not want to be overtaken by events.
And events in South Africa are taking place at a whirlwind pace. The twin pillars of apartheid -- laws requiring every South African to be registered by race and to live in areas designated by race -- have been repealed. The International Olympic Committee has cleared the way for South Africa to take part in the Barcelona Games next summer after an absence of 21 years. The Organization of African Unity, knowing that some Black African states are more openly trading and dealing with South Africa, has acknowledged that sanctions policy will have to be reviewed.
Mr. Bush does not exaggerate when he says there has been a "profound transformation" in South Africa since Mr. De Klerk took office only 22 months ago. A society long stratified along racist lines that empowered a white minority and subjugated a black majority, South Africa is moving toward a post-apartheid future on a fast timetable that makes U.S. racial adjustments seem like molasses. Its powerful presidency, once an instrument for the enforcement of apartheid, has been converted into an instrument for change.
For Americans, the five-year experiment in imposing economic sanctions has been an eye-opener. Former President Reagan and his conservative followers were wrong in their predictions that such punitive measures would slow the dismantling of apartheid and make the Pretoria government even more rigid. On the contrary, the opprobrium registered by the United States troubled the white minority almost as much as its exclusion from world sporting events and helped develop the mind-set that led to the De Klerk revolution.
Mr. Reagan was right, though, that all South Africans and especially black South Africans would suffer from boycotts, embargoes and denials of investment. But since this was a burden Mr. Mandela's ANC was willing to bear in pursuit of wider objectives, it was hardly for the United States to deny the wishes of the black majority.
Confronting Messrs. De Klerk and Mandela are lofty tasks that will quickly make U.S. sanctions a side issue. Within three years, their destiny is to write a new constitution that will pave the way for a multi-racial government elected from a common voting roll. So apartheid will end, once and for all.