THE EUROPEAN Community has voted to start lifting the economic sanctions imposed on South Africa. Its view is that the white minority government of Frederik de Klerk is proving by irreversible deeds its determination to break with apartheid and to set up a nonracial system, and therefore economic penalties are no longer required to force the pace of change. The United States and the British Commonwealth are moving toward a similar decision. It may be only a matter of months before economic criteria replace political ones in foreign economic transactions with South Africa. This is not just good sense and fair play in dealing with the reform leadership in Pretoria. It broadens economic opportunity for South Africa's blacks and expedites the political process. Internationally enforced isolation had a role when apartheid seemed unmovable. Internationally approved commerce, investment and development are the needs now.

The EC acted on sanctions even as the African National Congress, holding its first national conference at home in 31 years, asked it not to. Actually, it was worse. The ANC leadership of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo had recommended easing sanctions in order not to be left behind as foreigners moved on. But the delegates rejected this counsel, severely embarrassing Mandela and company in the process. The conference took a hard line on the conditions that the government must meet before the ANC will enter discussions on a new constitution -- although many rank-and-file blacks want these negotiations to begin right away. The conference also endorsed "mass action," a term referring to street demonstrations with a proven potential to turn violent.

It was always an illusion to think that Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk would simply sit down and by their own courage and rapport whisk South Africa to equality. Still, Mr. de Klerk is showing notably more success in carrying his constituency than Mr. Mandela is in bringing along his. The gap contributes to the current pessimistic mood. Black rage, impatience, distrust: these elements in the South African equation stem not just from the history but from the fact that the ruling class has dismantled some part of apartheid but has not yet actually replaced it with a democratic system. The challenge is to harness these elements of popular suspicion to the organization, discipline and vision required to create a new political order.