Washington — So far the symbolism may be more important than the diplomatic bargaining. Once one cuts through the complex diplomatic language used by officials here following the visit to Washington of South African Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha, one fact seems to stand out:
The cordial reception which the Reagan administration, including President Reagan himself, gave to Foreign Minister Botha amounted to a diplomatic triumph for the South Africans. It marked the beginning of a new, and possibly much warmer, relationship between the United States and South Africa. Never under the Carter administration could the South Africans have imagined being so well received in Washington.
What the United States got out of all this remains to be seen. The US is asking South Africa for a clear commitment to the current Western diplomatic effort to bring independence to the territory of South-West Africa. Also known as Namibia, the mineral-rich territory now is administered by South Africa.
But Foreign Minister Botha has expressed reservations about a longstanding plan for the use of a United Nations military force in Namibia. In the South African view, the United Nations leans too much in favor of the guerrillas of the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO). Botha stated during his visit here that he did see "a real possibility" of movement being made toward a settlement in Namibia under a new framework being proposed by the United States. But he must submit the US proposals to the South African cabinet for an official response.
Unlike the Carter administration, which had cool relations with South Africa, the Reagan administration has taken a more positive attitude toward that nation. While President Reagan has made clear that he regards South Africa's racial policy of apartheid as "repugnant," administration officials also heavily stress the strategic importance of South Africa. Officials say they now are pursuing quiet, rather than public, diplomacy in an attempt to encourage change in the South African system.
Critics say that without getting anything in return, the Reagan administration has scrapped essential parts of a Namibia peace plan negotiated by the Carter administration together with four other Western nations. They also contend that the new administration has given South Africa the "acceptability" which it has long sought without extracing concessions in return. The critics think that South Africa's strategy consists largely of stalling on Namibia, in the hope that new circumstances will change the situation and undermine support for SWAPO, which the South Africans describe as "Marxist" in leadership.
Randall Robinson, executive director of Transafrica, a privately financed black lobby in Washington, D.C., for Africa and the Caribbean, accused the Reagan administration of giving South Africa "an escape hatch" on the issue of Namibia, a country whose population is overwhelmingly black. He said this would convince black Africans that negotiating was fruitless and would give the Soviet Union new opportunities in Africa.
Richard M. Moose, assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Carter administration, said the United States now is left with the burden of convincing skeptical black Africans of the wisdom of a revised Namibia plan.
"The Botha visit in itself was 90 percent of what the South Africans wanted," Mr. Moose said. "On top of that, we gave away an important part of the negotiating formula on Namibia without getting any important concession in return."
The "giveaway" was to demand constitutional guarantees for the South African-backed white minority in Namibia even before elections could be held there.