WASHINGTON -- President Bush swept aside the centerpiece of U.S. trade and investment sanctions against South Africa yesterday, saying the country's black and white leaders had made "profound" and "irreversible" progress toward ending apartheid and preparing for negotiations on a new non-racial democracy.
Mr. Bush said he was convinced -- against protests and rebuttals from several key Democrats and black leaders -- that the white minority government had complied with the five conditions necessary for him to lift the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. Congress enacted the measure over a veto by then-President Ronald Reagan in October 1986.
President Bush said he issued an executive order shortly before noon terminating the act and lifting bans on a variety of South African imports and exports, financial and commercial investments and bank loans.
In addition, aides said, the U.S. Treasury was expected to act shortly on a State Department recommendation to lift a 1988 amendment that doubled the tax load on U.S. firms in South Africa.
The United States, Mr. Bush said, would strive also to help the South African economy out of its economic decline. The administration has decided to double its annual assistance to black South Africans from $40 million to $80 million for housing, economic development and education.
"This is a moment in history which many believed would never be attained," Mr. Bush said.
However, he added, "All is not totally well there, and we will
continue to be actively involved -- as actively involved as we can be."
The president said he would appeal to the leading industrial nations at their London summit next week to follow suit. "We all must help now," he said.
"Progress has been slow and often painful," Mr. Bush said of change in racial laws in South Africa. "But progress has definitely been made."
He disclosed that he had spoken earlier by telephone with anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela to tell him that lifting sanctions was "the right thing to do" and to inform him of the enhanced assistance program. He said that he would personally telephone South African President F. W. de Klerk today and that he would "indicate to him, we expect progress to continue."
Mr. Mandela told Mr. Bush that he disagreed with the lifting of sanctions, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
Herman Cohen said at a briefing later.
"He felt it was premature . . . that the process of dismantling apartheid hadn't proceeded as far as it should have," Mr. Cohen said.
That view was echoed by U.S. anti-apartheid activists and several prominent Democrats, some of whom said they were considering challenging the president's action in court.
In Houston, NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks said the move was "criminally irresponsible."
"I'm not satisfied" that the South African government has released all its political prisoners, said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash. "The most important element -- political rights -- has not been achieved."
The anti-apartheid act listed five conditions the South African government would have to meet before sanctions could be lifted -- including one mandatory condition, the release of all political prisoners.
South Africa has reportedly released more than 1,500 political prisoners over the last eight months. More than 850 are still in prisons and jails, but the State Department accepts the South African government's position that these are people guilty of political violence -- considered criminal -- and that they do not therefore warrant release.
Mr. Bush lifted the sanctions after receiving assurances from Secretary of State James A. Baker III that "all persons persecuted for their political beliefs or detained unduly without trial" had been freed, administration officials said.
The State Department said previously that the four other conditions had been met.
Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he did not believe that South Africa had released all political prisoners.
"Continued pressure is necessary . . . to ensure that further progress is made toward the goal of achieving full political, economic and social equality," he said.
He favored a partial lifting of the sanctions: "The administration has done too much too soon," he said.
Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, however, who as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 1986 sponsored the anti-apartheid bill, supported the president yesterday, saying that the movement toward democracy in South Africa was "irreversible."
The dispute hinges on interpretations of the conditions. Gay McDougall, a director of the Washington-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, said her organization was studying the possibility of challenging the president's decision in court. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., hinted at similar action last month while delivering an appeal for the president not to lift the sanctions.
Representative Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif., a prominent member the Congressional Black Caucus, acknowledged there had been progress in South Africa, but "clearly the purpose of the act has not been met as apartheid continues and the black majority of South Africans cannot vote and cannot hold office."
Summary of sanctions
A look at the major sanctions in place against South Africa and those that have been lifted recently:
* President Bush lifted U.S. sanctions yesterday that had banned new corporate investments and loans to government agencies, had forbidden imports of steel, iron, aluminum, coal, textiles and agricultural products and had prevented South African Airways from landing at U.S. airports.
Other U.S. sanctions include prohibitions on the sale of military equipment, strategic technology and nuclear material to South Africa.
* The European Community voted in April to lift bans on importing iron and steel and gold coins from South Africa, but the Danish Parliament blocked the move. An EC ban on new investment was lifted in December.
* Finland ended its trade embargo last week, but the Nordic countries still maintain some of the most comprehensive sanctions.
* The Organization of African Unity last month turned down a proposal to lift trade sanctions. Nonetheless, the OAU conceded that more than half its 51 members are now trading with South Africa.
* The United Nations imposed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa in 1963. The country nevertheless maintains the strongest and best-equipped military on the continent.
* Oil-producing nations in the Persian Gulf have pledged not to sell oil to South Africa, but the country meets its needs by paying slightly above market rates and buying through intermediaries.
* The International Olympic Committee welcomed South Africa back into the fold Tuesday after expelling the country in 1970.
* South African athletes have been barred from competing abroad by most international bodies that control amateur sports, but that is changing.
* The United Nations supports a cultural boycott and maintains a list of entertainers and athletes who perform in South Africa. The artists are not subject to any direct penalties.
* Fewer than 40 nations have full diplomatic ties with South Africa, but it has developed a number of low-level contacts with African states and Eastern European countries in the past two years. South Africa is a U.N. member but has no voting rights.