THE Reagan administration is apparently conceding to Congress any initiative in responding to the South African government's repression of black protest. House and Senate conferees are meeting today to decide what, from their separate lists of economic sanctions, they can agree upon to signal American disapproval of Pretoria's latest ``emergency'' curbs. The President would then be asked to sign a sanctions bill, banning such economic contacts as new bank loans, computer and nuclear technology sales for 18 months in the more moderate Senate version, or all new investment in the House version.
The passive White House response certainly sits in contrast to the French government's recent curbs on that country's contacts with South Africa and France's call to the United Nations last week to hold the South African government to account.
The premises of the Reagan administration's ``constructive engagement'' policy toward South Africa -- that a moderating trend in South African politics was begun with the coming to power of President P. W. Botha in 1978, and that waiting quietly for Mr. Botha to begin reconciliation offered the best prospects for South Africa's blacks -- has been dashed by events. This is not to say that constructive engagement should not have been tried. Much of foreign relations, like domestic policy, is b asically experimental. Constructive engagement vastly underestimated the polarization of South African politics. Given the spectrum of viewpoints within the Reagan administration, it was about as liberal a policy on human rights as could have been devised and was a worthy experiment.
But there is no backup White House policy on South Africa.
We are seeing a more moderate group of Republicans in the Senate take the lead on South Africa, in this case under the spokesmanship of two Kansans, majority leader Robert Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa.
This is akin to the White House's yielding to Senate GOP moderates the initiative on the budget and deficit battles without offering a counterproposal.
Already the movement away from President Reagan by Senate Republicans, with their greater appetite for action, reminds observers of the second Eisenhower administration. Even Donald Regan's greater prominence as chief of staff is being described as parallel to Sherman Adams's role.
Perhaps the administration hopes to ease into the August recess and let matters run their course during Washington's official downtime. In South Africa, President Botha has rejected Bishop Desmond Tutu's invitation to talk and has put off any meeting with black leaders until Aug. 19, despite Washington's appeal to the white government to start a dialogue at once.
A policy of delay and abstention -- the official Washington position on the United Nations Security Council vote last Friday calling for voluntary economic sanctions against South Africa -- is either a nonpolicy or support for Pretoria's repression.
At the least the administration should formulate a timetable and criteria for dialogue in South Africa, clearly setting forth conditions for continued US economic trade. It is too early, even in a second presidential term, to forfeit foreign-policy initiative to Capitol Hill.