De Klerk seeks the royal seal of approval: Return to Commonwealth on agenda as Queen meets SA leader for the first time in 32 years

PRESIDENT F W de Klerk met the Queen at Buckingham Palace yesterday, the first South African leader to do so since Hendrick Verwoerd met the Queen in 1961 just before South Africa became a republic and left the Commonwealth.

Then, South Africa was heading down the apartheid cul-de-sac and Mr Verwoerd told the Commonwealth Prime Ministers - who included Harold Macmillan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Robert Menzies, Kwame Nkrumah and Archbishop Makarios - that in light of other members' threat to leave the organisation if South Africa pursued apartheid, he would withdraw South Africa's application to remain in the Commonwealth.

Mr de Klerk was expected to discuss with the Queen South Africa's return to the Commonwealth. At the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Cyprus, it was confirmed that South Africa would be allowed to rejoin the organisation as soon as it had a government elected by universal franchise.

Mr de Klerk has been in London many times, but this was the first time he has been invited to the Palace - the Queen has already met Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress leader. Yesterday's meeting is an indication that South Africa has returned from the cul-de-sac and has been re-accepted among the world's nations.

Mr de Klerk took the opportunity of updating John Major and the Labour leader, John Smith, on the adoption of a new constitution and the setting up of the Transitional Executive Council, which will take South Africa to an election on 27 April.

Where once the visit of a South African leader was accompanied with vigorous anti- apartheid demonstrations and dialogues which sounded like a saw on granite, the feeling here now is that Mr de Klerk is a lame duck who is paying his last visit as head of state and is no longer in control of his country's destiny. Under the new constitution, the leader of the runner-up party or any party which wins 20 per cent of the vote in the election becomes a vice-president. That may be Mr de Klerk's position after next April when Mr Mandela will probably become president, but recent opinion polls have pushed his party into third place behind the right-wing Freedom Alliance. The prospect of the ANC trying to share power with the South African Conservative Party was not a prospect that South African officials wanted to speculate on yesterday.

Perhaps the most important part of Mr de Klerk's visit came last night when he addressed British business people, attempting to reassure them that South Africa's economy would survive the political upheavals of the election and the transfer of power. It is an uphill struggle and there is little possibility of new investment before the election. There is also the 'Africa factor' as a South African official complained recently. 'Businessmen used to say they wouldn't invest in South Africa until apartheid was abolished. Now the same people say they won't invest because they say that with black rule, South Africa will go the same way as the rest of Africa.

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