COLUMN LEFT : Why Then Embrace De Klerk? : In many ways, South Africa has been worse than Iraq. But how differently the Administration treats them.

As the value of oil increases, the value of blood may be devalued. Why else would the Bush Administration refuse to talk with Saddam Hussein with American lives at risk, and insist on talking with South Africa's President F. W. de Klerk while apartheid continues to reap its grisly harvest of African lives?

Why embrace De Klerk? Apartheid's racial repression of the majority for decades has taken a far greater toll than Hussein's attacks on the Kurdish minority in Iraq. De Klerk's presidency is no more democratic--and certainly far less representative--than Hussein's dictatorship. South Africa's terror against its several neighbors is no less aggression than Iraq's aggression against Kuwait.

President Bush announced that reforms in South Africa were "irreversible." But why give out the grade before the exam has been taken? Nelson Mandela is out of jail, but he is not free. The pillars of apartheid still stand--the laws that exclude blacks from voting, those that enforce segregation and racial exploitation, those that give the police emergency powers for brutal repression.

Indeed, President De Klerk's security police are now implicated in the current violence among black South Africans. De Klerk has used the rhetoric of one person, one vote, but does that have the same meaning in the South African context as it does in the United States? Nelson Mandela does not think reform is irreversible; he urges sanctions until democracy. Why embrace De Klerk?

For years, conservatives defended South Africa as a strategic ally against communism in southern Africa. But the Cold War is over. Romance with the apartheid regime, always immoral, now has no strategic excuse. Leaders of the African majority call upon us to keep the pressure on until democracy comes. If self-determination by the majority is a principle of American foreign policy, why then embrace De Klerk?

The world acknowledges that South Africa is a racist state. In 1988, the Democrats called it a terrorist state. Both are right. Under the pressure of economic sanctions and international isolation, De Klerk decided it was better to jaw with Nelson Mandela than to jail him. Greater political participation and involvement are happening in the country. Hopes for fundamental change have risen. But only the hope, not the reality.

This week, President Bush became thefirst U.S. President to meet with the head of a South Africa still organized on the principle of apartheid. If President Bush had met with De Klerk to repeat forcefully our concern for a democracy, our commitment to sanctions until democracy is reality, the meeting might have been understandable. We must learn to talk with those who we oppose. For the same reason, the United States should try to talk it out with Hussein, not simply fight it out. But we would not praise Hussein while Americans were still held hostage and Iraqi troops remained in Kuwait. Why then embrace De Klerk?

Many fear that De Klerk hopes to use cosmetic reform to end South Africa's costly international isolation, without ending the brutal racial exploitation on which apartheid is built--a face lift without changing the fundamentals in South Africa. The Administration's decision to use a loophole in the sanctions law to import South African iron and steel may embolden him. President Bush's warm embrace may encourage him. If so, the President's meeting with De Klerk was as wrong-headed as the Administration's kinder and gentler dealings with Saddam Hussein prior to the invasion of Kuwait. Both conversations sent the wrong message to the wrong man at the wrong time.

When Iraq's aggression threatens the supply of oil, we mobilize the world. Our guard seems to go down and our tolerance up when the question is racial violence. We cannot value oil more than blood. If we are to build the new world order that the President invokes, we must begin by measuring human rights by a single yardstick. Support international law, but be consistent. Why then embrace De Klerk?

The smiles may beguile. Congress should now make certain that President De Klerk is clear about this country's opposition to apartheid. Loopholes in the sanctions legislation should be closed, our commitment to sanctions until democracy restated. The end of South African economic sanctions and isolation should and will come from change within--not from public relations abroad.

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