ABUJA, Nigeria -- South Africa scored a major breakthrough on the road to respectability yesterday when President Frederik W. de Klerk arrived in Nigeria for an official visit that symbolized his country's new status in Africa.
It was the first visit to Nigeria by a South African head of state and a sign of improved relations between South Africa and the rest of the continent as a result of Mr. de Klerk's policy of dismantling the apartheid system.
Mr. de Klerk was welcomed by President Ibrahim Babangida as "the man who closed the book on apartheid. We welcome you as the prime mover who led the white electorate in South Africa to finally rise above itself."
At a dinner in his honor, Mr. de Klerk said the visit broke down "the barriers of history" that stood between his country and powerful Nigeria.
"Apartheid stood in the way of white Africans and black Africans meeting each other as brothers and fellow human beings," South African Foreign Minister Roelof "Pik" Botha told reporters earlier. "This is a milestone in our history."
He said the visit united "the two giants of the sub-Saharan region:" Nigeria, the oil-rich giant of western Africa, and South Africa, the richest, most powerful country in the southern part of the continent. Nigeria's president also is chairman of the Organization of African Unity, which once was an important force for sanctions against South Africa.
"This visit will go down in history as the most important we have have undertaken in the post-apartheid era," Mr. Botha said.
Mr. de Klerk received a 21-gun salute and was greeted as he stepped from his plane by President Babangida. Dignitaries in long flowing robes and a military band in green and white uniforms were on hand for the historic arrival.
The Nigerian visit takes place only three weeks after Mr. de Klerk won the support of a majority of white South Africans for his political reforms program.
It was the latest in a string of diplomatic successes for Mr. de Klerk, who has seen vast improvement in South Africa's international reputation since his reforms began more than two years ago.
Last week, another West African country, Ivory Coast, announced plans to restore full diplomatic relations. Tanzania said recently it would lift some sanctions.
South Africa had long been isolated from the entire international community, and black African countries such as as Nigeria and Tanzania led the campaign for isolation. Moves by these countries to accept South Africa represent an important signal to other countries around the world, which already has begun lifting economic, trade and sport sanctions.
The de Klerk visit did not cause any major protests or problems, butnot everyone welcomed him. The Democrat newspaper urged him to "wash his hands clean by making a speedier process of the reform which he has thankfully embarked on," and by ending violence in black townships which has claimed thousands of lives.
The African National Congress, South Africa's most influential black organization, criticized the visit as premature and said Nigeria should have waited until South Africa has established an interim government to replace the white minority regime and to usher the country into a democratic era.