Reagan Africa policy: sharp turn ahead, or only slight fork right?

The almost comic-opera hustling of five senior South African military officers out of the United States turns the spotlight on the conflicting signals about the Reagan administration's policy toward the entire African continent.

There is widespread expectation that the new administration will adopt a line less closely identified with African nationalism than the followed by President Carter -- and symbolized at the outset by his United Nations Ambassador, Andrew Young.(In fact, it would be hard to find anybody more unlike Mr. Young than Mr. Reagan's UN Ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick.)

But many are wondering -- and not least black Africans -- just where the pendulum will swing to, when the Reagan administration eventually finalizes its Africa policy.

Will the US identify itself with the white-run Republic of South Africa so closely that it alienates black Africa and the rest of the third world -- including oil- rich Nigeria, second biggest foreign oil supplier to the US? If so, will this be the heaven-sent opportunity the Soviets are waiting for?

Or will any change in US Africa policy be only one of degree?

The concern of those believing the US national interest is better served by not alienating black Africa has been heightened by:

* President Reagan's markedly warm references to the Republic of South Africa in his March 3 television interview with newsman Walter Cronkite.

* Indications that the new administration will try to ease UN pressure -- using its Security Council veto, if necessary -- to oblige South Africa to implement promptly a UN plan for elections in Namibia (South- West Africa) as a prelude to majority rule and internationally recognized independence for the territory.

* Reports that extreme conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms is willing to withdraw his opposition to the appointment of academic and Africa specialist Chester Crocker to the State Department's top Africa post only if a conservative Southerner to Mr. Helms's liking is appointed Ambassador to South Africa.

* Reports that the Reagan administration may give its support to Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA guerrilla movement in Angola as part of a plan to destabilize the leftist government of Angola, which keeps itself in power with Soviet-encouraged Cuban help in men and materials. Mr. Savimbi is already backed by South Africa. The Angolan government says it accepts Cuban help only because South African support makes Mr. Savimbi's guerrillas a threat.

* The clumsy handling by the US (as critics see it) of the expulsion from Mozambique of US diplomatic personnel, alleged by the Mozambicans to have been working for the CIA.

* The reluctance of the Reagan administration to give a lead to other Western powers with more generous economic aid to the government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. To many inside and outside Zimbabwe, Mr. Mugabe is the best hope for a stable government and a multiracial society there.

Support within the US for a friendlier US policy toward South Africa comes from various quarters. These include: (1) those who honestly think that the white minority South African government will more readily adopt fairer policies toward its non-white majority if subjected to friendly persuasion rather than to international hectoring; (2) those -- particularly in the military -- who are sensitive to the strategic importance of south Africa, because of its geography and its key mineral resources, in the superpower struggle with the USSR; (3) multinational companies eager for business opportunities; and (4) outright white racists.

The South African government of Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha -- facing a general election next month -- is understandably desirous of improving relations with the US and apparently counts on Mr. Reagan to cooperate in t hat direction.

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