President Frederik W. de Klerk, the first South African leader to visit the United States in 45 years, met Monday with President Bush to explore ways to improve U.S.-South African relations severely damaged by his country's white minority rule.

"It's marvelous being here," de Klerk said at the beginning of the session with Bush in the Oval Office.Bush halted further remarks by the South African leader, telling him of his policy of not answering questions during photo sessions with heads of state.

"I certainly respect the president's decision," de Klerk said.

The leader of the white minority government, was seeking to improve relations between South Africa and the United States, relations long shunned because of Pretoria's racial policies and denial of civil rights to the black majority.

On his arrival Sunday, de Klerk declared "the new South Africa is at hand" and promised the "walls of apartheid are coming down."

On departure from Johannesburg, he told reporters he hoped to "change the image" of his country as an oppressor. "We mean business, " he said.

Asked whether he sought solutions to South Africa's problems of apartheid and political divisions, he said, "I'm going to be giving information about the solutions we're making."

De Klerk planned to meet with Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, before going to the White House.

While on Capitol Hill, de Klerk also had meetings scheduled with Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine and Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas.

Upon his arrival in America, de Klerk recalled the words of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr: "Peace and freedom are the goals of all men. South Africa has embarked on a great journey. It is a journey for full democracy at home and abroad, full participation in the family of nations."

Bush and other key officials have said they believe that the reforms de Klerk announced when he took power a year ago are sincere and have put South Africa on the long road to democratic rule for that country's black majority.

Secretary of State James Baker told NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday "it's interesting that negotiations" between the de Klerk government and the rival black activists have begun. "I know President de Klerk wants that continued," he said.

Baker also pointed out that de Klerk has said that South Africa "is on an irreversible course toward a non-racial democratic society."

"Our role is to encourage negotiations," Baker added.