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O NE CAN ONLY imagine how right-wing reactionaries in South Africa view the tumultuous welcome Nelson Mandela is receiving as he kicks off an eight-city tour of the United States to press for an ending of apartheid.

Surely, it must send chills through them as it much as it warms those in America who view such support as one more indication that the march toward human rights in South Africa is too big to be stopped.

Nor should Western nations do anything that might slow that accelerating progression -- like lifting sanctions prematurely.

Significantly, President Bush announced the day before Mandela arrived that he will not attempt to do that until Pretoria meets the conditions spelled out in the 1986 U.S. law under which they were imposed.

The need to keep the pressure on South Africa by maintaining sanctions was Mandela's main message when he spoke to Canadians earlier this week. He repeated the theme in speeches in New York City and will reiterate it when he meets with Bush in Washington on Monday. The president already appears to have heard and will wisely take heed.

That is reassuring after earlier reports that the White House has been studying some of the steps South African President F.W. de Klerk has taken to ease repression to determine if they satisfied requirements of the U.S. law.

Questions of interpretation over such issues as how many prisoners South Africa still holds for political reasons, or whether
the state of emergency has been lifted because it remains in force only in Natal province -- the scene of black-on-black clashes -- could be used to battle Congress over the sanctions.

Bush, who opposes sanctions, is right not to pursue that course. Not only would it be wrong, but the timing would undercut the support Mandela is generating, support he hopes will translate into monetary help to finance the continued struggle for equality for all of South Africa's residents.

No one has done more to keep that struggle alive -- within South Africa and in the world's consciousness -- than the 71-year-old Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison but still managed to remain spiritual leader to the movement that would not die.

The respect that such commitment earns, as well as the grace he has shown in rejecting bitterness and taking a lead role in bringing his country together, make Mandela what Mayor David Dinkens called "a modern-day Moses."

Thus, it was not surprising that 750,000 New Yorkers of all races would turn out to bolster his efforts. And it was perhaps appropriate that Mandela stop first in that city, which has come to symbolize much of the racial tension that still exists in this country.

While Americans' response to him will help facilitate progress in South Africa, Mandela's presence here cannot help but draw Americans together, too, as they put aside differences long enough to recognize someone who gave so much just to be treated equally.

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