An end to international sanctions is, as President F W de Klerk said yesterday, simply a matter of time.
There was speculation that Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress president, might ask for the economic siege of the apartheid state to be lifted when he and Mr de Klerk receive a joint 'liberty' award tomorrow from President Bill Clinton in Philadelphia. But Mr Mandela hinted in Washington last night that such an ANC policy shift might take two or three weeks to materialise.
Negotiators taking part in multi- party talks officially declared yesterday afternoon, despite objections from the right wing, that elections would be held on 27 April next year for a government of national unity whose primary task it would be to draft and adopt a new constitution.
The decision hammered virtually the last nail into the coffin of the system which has legally enforced racial discrimination in South Africa for the past 45 years and caused untold suffering to the country's black majority.
The ANC chief negotiator, its secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa, told reporters 'the democracy train' was now 'unstoppable' - a sentiment echoed by the head of the government delegation, the constitutional development minister, Roelf Meyer.
Delegates of the Inkatha Freedom Party and the far-right Conservative Party (CP) walked out of the chamber in protest at the forum's decision to set the election date but, contrary to earlier fears, said they would not pull out of constitutional negotiations.
The 26-party Negotiations Forum, which is, in effect, already South Africa's new parliament, approved a resolution confirming the date, provisionally agreed two weeks ago, after a show of hands had yielded 'sufficient consensus'. In practice it meant that 20 of the 26 parties at the talks had pronounced themselves in favour.
The parties against belong to the Concerned South Africans Grouping (Cosag), a loose alliance led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha, which mainly represents conservative Zulus, and the CP, Afrikaner separatists, hundreds of whose supporters pressed their point last Friday by storming the negotiations venue with guns.
The other Cosag parties are the Afrikaner Volksunie, which seeks an Afrikaner-controlled federal state; the Ciskei and Bophuthatswana homelands (whose apartheid-imposed 'independence' only Pretoria recognises); and the KwaZulu government, over which Inkatha exercises one- party control.
Repeated compromises in the past two weeks by ANC and government negotiators failed to bring Cosag into the fold. The ANC, in particular, abandoned its objections to a federal constitutional system to accommodate the concern of Inkatha, whose support resides mostly in Natal province and neighbouring KwaZulu.
President de Klerk and Mr Mandela were meeting President Clinton in the Oval Office last night to discuss how to channel greater US and foreign money to help the post-apartheid South Africa.
During their parallel visits to the US, the paths of the leaders of the black and white South Africas officially cross only twice, at the White House yesterday and at the Philadelphia ceremony tomorrow when Mr Clinton will award both America's prestigious Liberty Medal.
The nub of the sanctions issue is not so much the limited remaining government sanctions orginally imposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, but the dozens of measures taken by individual states and cities, and the boycott threats against US companies which did business with white-ruled South Africa. Only a clear and uneqivocal statement by Mr Mandela will suffice to end these restrictions.
Yesterday's resolution confirming the election date contained a number of clauses designed to appease the dissident and disparate Cosag grouping, such as the proviso that numerous agreements on the nature of the post- apartheid state would have to be reached in the multi-party talks before an election could take place.
Cosag delegates said they would not be won round until they had a clear vision of the constitution. As Tom Langley (CP) said: 'We're putting the cherry on the cake when the ingredients are not yet determined.'
The Communist Party chairman, Joe Slovo, a key member of the ANC alliance, replied that those who spoke of unseemly haste were not taking into account the aspirations of South Africa's indigenous people, who had been waiting 350 years to vote.