The 12-nation European Community on Saturday abolished a 4-year-old EC ban on new investments in South Africa in order to recognize reforms by South African President Frederik de Klerk.

Other EC sanctions, which include an arms ban and a prohibition on imports of South African iron, steel and gold coins, remain intact pending further steps to abolish apartheid.In South Africa, black anti-apartheid groups condemned the decision as "disgusting" and "unfortunate," but the government, the liberal opposition and business leaders welcomed the move.

"There was widespread acknowledgment that a considerable amount has been done - the release of political prisoners, the unbanning of political parties, the discussions with the ANC (African National Congress), the abolition of the Separate Amenities Act - a whole series of things that are very positive moves forward in South Africa," said new British Prime Minister John Major.

The decision to immediately lift the investment ban was taken on the final day of a two-day summit of EC leaders.

"To help combat unemployment and improve the economic and social situation in South Africa, and to encourage the current movement toward the total abolition of apartheid, we have decided to abolish the ban on new investments," EC leaders said in a final summit communique.

Britain has long argued for an end to the EC investment ban imposed in 1986, maintaining it was most harmful to South African blacks. The British government had already lifted its own ban on new investment in South Africa.

Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, who holds the rotating EC presidency, said the Community wanted to send a signal of support to de Klerk.

"It is certain that some progress has been made," he said. "We have to send out some kind of encouragement, but there must be a full return to normality. In particular, the laws on apartheid have to be abrogated."

In Johannesburg, South Africa, the president of the militantly hard-line Azanian People's Organization, Itumeleng Mosala, called the EC step "disgusting." He said it was "to be expected, as white people support other white people."

Shortly before the EC announced its decision, the African National Congress was meeting near Johannesburg for its first national conference in 30 years and passed a resolution calling for the world to maintain sanctions. The ANC meeting was possible because de Klerk unbanned the ANC last February.

ANC information chief Pallo Jordan later called the EC decision "unfortunate . . . It shows the EC is not convinced by our arguments."

But Foreign Minister Pik Botha said the lifting of the 4-year-old investment ban was proof de Klerk's reform initiatives had paid off.

"It is positive recognition for President F.W. de Klerk's courageous steps," Botha said. "It is clear that the government's viewpoint that the process of change is irreversible is beginning to enjoy wider recognition."

Leader of South Africa's liberal Democratic Party Zach de Beer said the EC was "plainly right" to reward Pretoria.