WASHINGTON — President Bush pledged support for an early end to U.S. sanctions against South Africa as he met for more than two hours Monday with South African President Frederik W. de Klerk.
"The process of change in South Africa is irreversible," Bush said, voicing a controversial position that differs from that of most other Western leaders and puts the Administration at odds with Nelson Mandela, deputy president of the African National Congress.
Monday's remarks were the strongest signal yet from the President that he would like to remove the South Africa trade barriers as soon as possible. And Bush went out of his way to disagree publicly with anti-apartheid leaders who have called for keeping the sanctions in place, even if the South African government meets the technical requirements of the U.S. law that imposed the trade bans.
"These conditions are clear-cut and are not open to re-interpretation, and I do not believe in moving the goal posts," Bush said as he bade farewell to De Klerk from the South Portico of the White House. Behind the two men, a black U.S. Marine stood holding the South African flag.
De Klerk, for his part, thanked Bush for recognizing a "new reality" emerging in South Africa that would include "a vote of equal value for all South Africans" and "equal opportunities and full democratic rights to all its people."
"We are adamant to use the window of opportunity which history has given us to assure that we will bring about a new and just South Africa," he said.
Outside the White House, more than 100 demonstrators, including California Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, marched in opposition to De Klerk's visit. Chanting "Free South Africa" and "Mandela, yes; De Klerk, no," the protesters denounced recent violence in South Africa that, they claim, has been caused in part by vigilantes acting at the behest of government security agents.
Administration officials concede that protests of this sort are only a hint of the political controversy that a move to lift sanctions could prompt. So far, Bush has been unwilling to get involved in a political fight over South Africa. By contrast, Bush's predecessor, Ronald Reagan, opposed the sanctions legislation that Congress passed over his veto in 1988.
Bush's political caution, officials said, means that any move to actually lift the sanctions is still months away at the earliest and would be made only after extensive consultation with congressional leaders.
But the President's statement that the changes in South Africa are "irreversible" appeared to give De Klerk the endorsement he had hoped for during his visit, the first by a South African head of state since 1948.
The statement also could have an important impact on moves to lift European sanctions against South Africa. The European Community and the British Commonwealth both have made "evidence of profound and irreversible change" the condition for lifting their trade boycotts. European leaders have not yet accepted De Klerk's word that the changes in his country have, in fact, reached the "irreversible" point.
In the United States, Bush has the right to suspend or modify the sanctions, without congressional approval, by certifying that South Africa has made "substantial progress" toward building a "nonracial democracy" and has met at least four specific conditions.
Administration officials argue that two of those conditions--ending the ban on the African National Congress and opening negotiations with organizations representing the nation's black majority--have been met.
A third condition--releasing political prisoners--is expected to be met over the next several months as De Klerk carries out an agreement reached earlier this summer with the ANC to free about 2,500 people now in jail. During their meeting, De Klerk assured Bush that the prisoner releases would be expedited, Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen told reporters.
A fourth condition--ending the state of emergency in the country--depends on the government's ability to control violence in Natal Province, currently the only part of the country still under emergency rule.
Mandela and his supporters in the United States, led by the TransAfrica Institute, argue that "fundamental change" has not yet come to South Africa and that the steps De Klerk has taken so far do not meet the law's requirements. The sanctions should be continued until far more drastic actions are taken, they argue.
TransAfrica successfully pressed members of the Congressional Black Caucus to cancel a planned meeting with De Klerk, although Dellums said that he and several other black congressmen plan to meet with De Klerk today during sessions with congressional leaders and Foreign Affairs Committee members.