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Hope in Southern Africa?

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WHEN a white politician sits down with an imprisoned black man to talk, that might not seem like much of an event in most of the world. But when the meeting takes place in apartheid-riven South Africa; when the white politician is one of the leaders of Afrikaner nationalism; and when the black man is Nelson Mandela, the head of the African National Congress (ANC), jailed for 27 years for challenging white supremacy, that is an event of considerable drama.

It was South Africa's President P.W. Botha himself who invited Mr. Mandela to come from his place of detention in Cape Town to visit for 45 minutes at the presidential residence.

The two men had never met before, and it was the first time Mandela had ever met a white official of such seniority.

The lack of such communication between black and white leaders over the years is in itself a tragic demonstration of wasted opportunity. The fact that such a meeting has at last taken place is a gleam of hope for the future.

A government announcement said that President Botha and Mandela had confirmed ``their support for peaceful development in South Africa.''

In the subtle political language of South Africa, that could be significant stuff. It could give the government the political fig leaf it is looking for to release Mandela. The government has said Mandela must disavow the violence of the ANC's militant wing before he can be freed.

The African National Congress, meanwhile, has said Mandela must be released, and other conditions fulfilled, before it would suspend its guerrilla war against South Africa's white government.

Mandela's long imprisonment has become an embarrassment to the South African government, and especially so to a new generation of government party leaders. Some members of the cabinet have been lobbying for Mandela's release.

National Party leader F.W. de Klerk, who is expected to succeed Mr. Botha as President later this year, is being looked to for signs of any new flexibility in handling South Africa's problems.

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