Johannesburg — The latest US ''carrot'' being dangled before South Africa appears to be enriched uranium fuel pellets. The Reagan administration approach to South Africa has been to use ''carrots'' instead of ''sticks'' to encourage this country toward goals desired by the United States, such as the granting of independence to Namibia (South-West Africa).
The arrival this week of a team of four American nuclear specialists - all representing the US government - is seen here as another step toward closer relations between the two countries. The specialists began talks with African energy officials Oct. 21.
''The relationship in the nuclear development field has been a particular sore point on the South African side,'' says John Barratt, director-general of the South African Institute of International Affairs. Since 1977 the United States has refused to export enriched uranium to South Africa until this country signs the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty - a step South Africa has refused to take.
The requirement has been particularly galling to South Africa, since the United States played such a prominent role in helping launch nuclear development here.
In 1957 the two countries signed a bilateral agreement on atomic energy, and the US permitted the sale of the Safari 1 research reactor to South Africa.
South Africa has a pressing need for the nuclear fuel. Its large 1,800 -megawatt Koeberg nuclear power plant in the sand dunes north of Cape Town on the west coast is a mere six to eight months away from operation. It consists of two units, and Koeberg 1 is on target for completion by mid-1982. At a total plant cost of about $2 billion, South Africa does not want the facility to sit idle.
International affairs analysts here say the visit by US experts may indicate the US is willing to settle for less than South Africa signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty before agreeing to export enriched uranium.
South Africa has said it is reluctant to sign the treaty because it does not want its own pilot uranium enrichment plant at Valindaba near Pretoria subject to international inspection as it would be if South Africa signed the NNPT. It wants to guard its enrichment technique for proprietary reasons, it says.
South African Atomic Energy Board president Wynand de Villiers was quoted as saying that the US team was here for talks on ''safeguards.'' Analysts here see this as a sign that the countries may be seeking a way to put the Valindaba uranium enrichment facility under some form of inspection that would satisfy the US and also give Pretoria assurances its enrichment technique would be protected.
South African nuclear development is of considerable international concern. Sighting of what appeared to be a nuclear test site in 1977 in the Kalahari Desert, and the mysterious nuclear-type flash over the south Atlantic in 1979 have raised concerns that South Africa is engaged in a nuclear-weapons program. South Africa has denied this.
Valindaba is already producing enriched uranium. The South African energy minister announced with pride earlier this year that the Safari 1 research reactor was running on fuel produced at Valindaba.
However, there is doubt that Valindaba has the capacity to provide enough fuel, and soon enough, for Koeberg. Indeed, South Africa signed a contract with the US Energy Resources and Development Agency in 1974 to have uranium enriched in the US because it felt it could not supply Koeberg on its own.
After the uranium is enriched it must be shipped to France to be assembled into fuel rods before it can be used in South Africa.
Mr. Barratt says one of the most curious developments in the nuclear fuel issue is that South Africa has been noticeably silent about demands for enriched uranium from the US recently. It may be, he says, that South Africa was confident it could in a pinch get the fuel from some other country and that the US is now simply looking to maintain its own involvement in South Africa's nuclear industry.