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It's time for the United States to start lifting its economic sanctions against South Africa.

Though such a move would have been in order earlier, the need for it should be beyond dispute now that South Africa has scrapped the last of five major apartheid laws, ending most legally sanctioned race segregation.Yes, some work remains to be done - namely, releasing political prisoners and completing a new constitution giving the black majority the right to vote.

But this work is under way, and it's folly for some American and South African leaders to keep insisting that sanctions remain in full force until every last detail is put in place.

After all, the healing process can't be completed until South Africa not only puts apartheid behind it but also deals with poverty, illiteracy, homelessness, and unemployment. The solution of those problems would be speeded by the lifting of U.S. sanctions.

The Washington-based Investor Responsibility Research Center estimates that the South African economy is up to 35 percent smaller today than it would have been without economic sanctions from the U.S. and other nations. At the same time, South Africa is suffering from weak world prices for gold.

No wonder that the European Common Market decided last April to lift its ban on imports from South Africa. This week Japan announced it will shortly lift some of its sanctions. Certain sanctions also are being lifted by such neighbors of South Africa as Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Zaire and Madagascar. Similarly, the International Olympic Committee is moving to permit South African participation in the 1992 Olympics for the first time since 1960.

The United States was among the last countries to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. But, with reform well underway in Johannesburg, it doesn't necessarily follow that Washington should bring up the rear in lifting sanctions. Let's do it - now.