The African National Congress would agree to the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions against South Africa's minority white government if "mutual confidence" is achieved between the government and the anti-apartheid movement, and if progress is being made in negotiations between the two over the country's future, deputy ANC president Nelson Mandela said yesterday.

The establishment of confidence, Mandela said, does not necessarily hinge on the adoption of a new national constitution, one of the principal ANC goals.

Mandela has said that sanctions must not be lifted until progress toward a new political system in South Africa is "irreversible." Yesterday, in an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors, he clarified his use of the term, saying that the ANC would look at the sum of the government's actions -- not any one, particular act -- to determine when "irreversibility" has been achieved.

"It may not be necessary for us actually to agree upon a constitution before we can feel that a fundamental and irreversible change has taken place," Mandela said. "It's a question that must depend on the progress that we're making, and on how we address the problems that arise, and how mutual confidence is built in the course of our negotations."

A 1986 U.S. law sets out specific conditions that must be met before sanctions against South Africa can be lifted, including the release of political prisoners, the repeal of the state of emergency and the repeal of laws mandating racial separation in virtually all areas of daily life.

Some of the conditions have been met, including the release from prison of Mandela himself. Many others have not, although U.S. law allows President Bush to modify the sanctions if he finds that substantial progress toward dismantling the racial separation system, called apartheid, has taken place. Bush said Monday that the sanctions would be maintained for now.

In the interview, Mandela was animated and appeared to be in high spirits despite the grueling schedule of meetings and appearances on this, the third stop of his eight-city tour. His wife, Winnie Mandela, appeared tired and did not speak during the half-hour session.

Addressing a wide range of issues, Mandela compared the struggle of blacks in the United States and South Africa, discounted reports of disenchantment among youthful ANC supporters, and acknowledged that sanctions have hurt the South African economy, but said, "This is the price the country must pay for bringing about {the demise of} a system which we consider evil and inexcusable."

Sanctions, he said, were the only pressure that finally persuaded the white minority government to consider loosening its grip on the nation's political, economic and social structure.

"After our liberation," he said, "we will of course invite the entire world, including the United States of America, to help us to prepare our economy. So that it can grow and perform. And we will do that and we hope that all countries which will be in a position to help will do so. This is the only option open to us. And we have called for sanctions knowing the damage that will be done to our economy."

Mandela, while acknowledging that many of his youthful adherents in South Africa are angry over the slow pace of change, said some frustration is "perfectly understandable, because they live under terrible disabilities" because of apartheid. Many of these youths, raised on the rhetoric of the ANC's armed struggle, say they would rather fight for their freedom than negotiate.

But Mandela said "you'll be making a mistake if you think that the youth are impatient with the negotiations that are going on. We are working with youth. . . . But as far as following the line put forward by the ANC, the youth are fully behind us."

Asked to compare the struggle of black Americans with that of black South Africans, Mandela said what American blacks are aided by laws guaranteeing their rights, while South African laws guarantee no rights for blacks.

What American blacks "are doing is to overcome the prejudice which is to be found in certain population groups. But for this . . . they can rely on the Constitution" and the judicial system. "And if the courts are themselves independent, as I believe the American court judiciary is, then of course you can conduct the struggle for your civil rights through the court as well. . . .

"We can't do so in South Africa because the color bar is part of the legal system itself. . . . (I)n the United States of America, you have blacks who have risen to the top as far as the judiciary is concerned. It may not be to the standard to which the black people of this country desire," he said, "but you have personalities who have become famous judicial figures indeed, and whose judgments are studied throughout the world. Not so in South Africa. The judiciary is drawn exclusively from whites."

Throughout his tour, many black Americans have viewed Mandela as a symbol of a common struggle against racism. Some have compared him to Martin Luther King Jr. Asked how he felt about that comparison, Mandela said it was "of course natural for people to regard a man whom they think has performed excellently as a symbol.

"But in actual fact, what this means is that the {ANC} has succeeded in putting somebody in a particular position to perform certain tasks and that task is being performed as the organization desires. Therefore, I never regard such sentiments as being referred to an individual separate from the organization and the cause that it represents."

Referring to a recently uncovered assassination plot against him in South Africa, Mandela said if he were to die, his death would not hamper the work of the ANC.

"It makes no difference as to whether an individual is there or not, because we work as a team," he said. "We were brought up under the principle of collective leadership. There is nobody amongst us who is indispensable."