FALLING IDOL

By , The writer, a South African, recently returned to New York from six weeks in South Africa.

The United States has long held a mystique for black South Africans: * Township slang echoes the jive talk of US ghettoes.

* Among young black workers Bass and Florsheim are the most popular brands of shoes.

* Homemakers aspire to have American-style kitchens.

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* Black American entertainers draw substantial black audiences on South African tours - even if their popularity is on the wane at home.

Seeking to escape the oppression of their lives as virtual second-class citizens, many black South Africans seem to model their popular culture and hopes for change on the experience of black Americans. The heroes of those American battles are their heroes, too.

At the height of the US civil rights movement, Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy received an ecstatic welcome as he traveled in a motorcade through Soweto, a black township near Johannesburg. And at the start of the Carter administration, United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young had the status of a folk hero.

Black South Africans looked to the US and saw progress in the black community and a beacon of hope for themselves. They believed that when a superpower stated its abhorrence of apartheid, change would come to their lives.

But today there is a growing group of politically aware black South Africans who have become disillusioned with the US. These blacks have seen American corporate investment in their country reach record levels - estimated in excess of $14.6 billion in leaked State Department correspondence in August - but note few structural changes in their own lives. They are cynical about American intentions in South Africa. In many cases, this cynicism is hardening into an angry anti-Americanism. This trend is aggravated by the Reagan administration's policy of ''constructive engagement'' with South Africa's white-minority government.

This developing black attitude was evident to this writer, a white South African, on a visit home 18 months ago when the effects of Reagan policy were just beginning to filter through South Africa. And it was evident on a more recent trip across the country.

Although the Reagan administration appears to be trying to improve its image - by contributing to relief efforts in drought-stricken areas and by admitting more black South Africans to study at US universities than previous administrations - the efforts do not seem to be producing results. The prevailing view among black South Africans is that the Reagan government is indifferent to their plight and is in effect collaborating with the ruling Nationalist government.

Several recent US actions have reinforced this view. Among them: A Cape Town newspaper last July published a photograph of Cooperation and Development Minister Piet Koornhof toasting US Ambassador Herman Nickel. Blacks took offense because Mr. Koornhof oversees the lives of blacks and is highly disliked by them. Blacks are also furious that the US has given qualified endorsement to Pretoria's plan to refashion the South African Constitution in a way that gives all racial groups except blacks a role in government.

In a referendum Wednesday, South Africa's white voters approved the plan by a wide margin. Black and Colored South Africans, opposing the constitution on grounds that will not change present power structures, formed a major opposition organization - the United Democratic Front - last August. Before the referendum, the UDF and many other black leaders attempted to convince white voters to oppose the plan.

Now the UDF, which represents about 400 community organizations, will probably try to discourage Coloreds (people of mixed racial descent) and Indians from taking part in the government bodies created under the new constitution. The front's first rally in August drew more than 7,000 people. The US, as well as the constitution, came in for heavy criticism at the rally.

''The United States government is only furthering its own economic interests in our country at the expense of the well-being of the people,'' states a resolution adopted by the group. ''This unashamed greed and callous support for this unpopular and undemocratic government by the United States cannot stop us in our march toward freedom,'' it continued.

The Reagan administration, guided by US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, views the US as having a limited influence on South Africa's white authorities. The policy view is that the US can accomplish more by rewarding Pretoria for good behavior than by punishing it for bad.

Much of the emphasis of this policy has been designed to coax the South Africans into withdrawing from Namibia (South-West Africa). South Africa has occupied the territory since World War I - at first under a mandate from the League of Nations, and later illegally when it refused to leave the region.

That policy goal has not been reached and talks on Namibian independence are stalled, yet the US has become perhaps the most influential player in the West's effort to work out a Namibian solution. The Nationalist government, which condemned the US during the Carter years, now refers to Washington as an ally - sometimes in friendlier terms than the US administration would like.

Evidence of the easier relationship is seen in the quickly arranged visits of CIA director William Casey to Pretoria last December and that of South African Security Police chief Johan Coetzee to Washington last February. In preceding US administrations, American officials sometimes had difficulty getting visas for South Africa.

Although communication at the diplomatic level is improved, American interaction with the vast majority of South Africans is drastically reduced.

''A lot of Afrikaans doors are open to us now, and a lot of black doors are closed,'' confides a US Information Agency official in Johannesburg, South Africa's financial capital. ''Some (black doors) were closed before, but it is more than previously.''

Many black leaders - including Bishop Desmond Tutu, head of the South African Council of Churches, and Zwelakhe Sisulu, the influential president of the Media Workers Association of South Africa - are wary of meeting with Reagan administration officials, sometimes refusing contact outright. They had good contacts with the US during the Carter administration.

Black journalists, who are influential in South Africa's black community, also have little contact with Reagan administration officials - and do not seek it.

When a fact-finding group from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists asked black journalists why this was so, the South Africans responded that ''the Reagan administration's announced policy of 'constructive engagement' with South Africans meant support for that government. . . . They considered it preposterous that they should seek contact with a supporter of the government that oppresses them,'' according to a committee report published after the group's trip to South Africa this year.

The Committee to Protect Journalists found that Ambassador Nickel was unaware that many black journalists had been banned or jailed.

American visitors - including some who are trying to understand black views - have felt the heat of black anger at the Reagan government.

For example, black student organizations at three key universities recently refused to meet with staff members of a congressional subcommittee on foreign affairs that had traveled to South Africa to study educational aid to blacks. An officer of a major US foundation that administers social projects in South Africa reports similar difficulties.

''Anti-Americanism is slopping over everyone and everything,'' the foundation official says. ''As a representative of a private United States organization, I have found it much more difficult to work in South Africa since the Reagan administration took office. The United States has never been on the right side of the black community, but this shift has made things significantly worse. I find black organizations much more skeptical of American intentions and goodwill than in previous years.''

Even the AFL-CIO, which is exploring the possibility of aiding South Africa's black trade unions, has been coolly received. Many unionists charged that the African-American Labor Center - an arm of the AFL-CIO that traveled to South Africa to talk with the unions last year - was simply an agent for constructive engagement. The unionists pointed out that the center receives a large proportion of its funding from the Agency for International Development, an arm of the State Department. And they resurrected allegations of CIA involvement with the union federation's international arm.

An AFL-CIO award to Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, leader of the nation's 4 million Zulus and of their ''cultural movement,'' Inkatha, did not improve the US labor group's image in South Africa. Buthelezi, a powerful and outspoken leader, is considered conservative and antilabor by many unionists. The award was described by spokesmen for the Motor Allied and Component Workers' Union of South Africa, which has many members at Ford plants, as ''a total degradation of the workers' attitude toward the struggle, as it is an insult to the efforts, contribution, and even the character of Dr. Aggett [a white union leader who died in government custody and with whom Buthelezi shared the award].''

Another factor in negative black attitudes toward the US is Washington's antipathy toward black South African liberation groups like the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress. Both the Reagan and Carter administrations have refused official contact with the ANC. Yet the ANC is gaining support in the black community - even though membership in the banned organization is a criminal offense.

The ANC reportedly receives financial assistance from the Soviet Union and East Germany, and South African authorities allege it is controlled by members of the outlawed South African Communist Party. Much the same reason has been cited by US administrations for their refusal to deal with the ANC.

The US did condemn a South African raid into Lesotho late last year in which ANC members and Lesotho nationals were killed, and it attempted to gain clemency on humanitarian grounds for ANC guerrillas facing death sentences in South Africa. But the prevailing black view is of official American hostility to black South Africans.

Commenting on the American attitude, David Ndaba, a spokesman for the ANC mission to the UN, pointed out that the ANC has official contacts with other Western countries - Britain, France, Canada, and West Germany among them.

''The US is alone and out of step in this situation,'' he says. ''It is detrimental to the understanding and relationship between the people of South Africa and the people of the United States. . . . The Americans can only interpret the South African situation through the view of the South African authorities, and that is bound to lead the United States to make the wrong conclusions.''

Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, chairman of a Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, visited South Africa earlier this year and then wrote in the Washington Post that it is ''essential at times we be openly critical of present racial policies.''

And in response to widespread condemnation of its friendly relationship with South Africa, the Reagan administration does appear to be modifying its policy somewhat. The United States Agency for International Development is considering the funding of major projects in labor, business, and education for black South Africans. Senior administration officials, including Ambassador Nickel and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Lawrence Eagleburger, have in recent months made speeches on South Africa that have been interpreted as warning Pretoria that it must show progress on race relations and in the stalled Namibia negotiations or it may forfeit constructive engagement.

But the shifts in policy may be too late, especially if they are perceived as being aimed only at ''petty apartheid'' such as segregation in restaurants and cinemas.

Many blacks are already defining their struggle in more sophisticated terms than separation of the races. Political activists and members of the growing black trade union movemen are seeking to define the conflict in South Africa as a workers' or class struggle.

They point out that the government itself seeks to create a buffer of affluent blacks who will have a high standard of living and possibly even political rights in white South Africa. Some observers claim that that new constitution is the first step in that direction. But critics predict that even this reform will doom the majority of black South Africans to live out their lives in impoverished tribal homelands. These activists see American foreign policy and values as part of the enemy. The policies of the Reagan administration can only serve to harden that attitude.

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