Washington — Seeking to avoid a politically damaging clash with Congress and to reassert his control of foreign policy, President Reagan has imposed limited sanctions on South Africa. Condemning the system of racial apartheid, the President yesterday put into effect most of the measures called for in the sanctions bill that was headed for passage in the Senate. (Sanction details, Page 44.)
In announcing the measures, the President stressed they were aimed at racial segregation, but without punishing the people who are victims of that system. ``We must work for peaceful evolution and reform,'' he declared. ``Our aim cannot be to punish South Africa with economic sanctions that would injure the very people we are trying to help.''
While defending his policy of using persuasion to effect change, the President at the same time indicated that the American people could get ``impatient'' and felt ``very strongly about the changes that are needed in society.''
``The system of apartheid means deliberate systematic, institutionalized, racial discrimination, denying the black majority their God-given rights,'' Reagan said in one of his strongest statements to date. ``America's view of apartheid is simple and straightforward: We believe it is wrong. We condemn it. And we are united in hoping for the day when apartheid will be no more.''
The President's executive order came as the Senate was moving toward adoption of a sanctions bill this week, and Republican leaders indicated they would move to delay further action on it. ``It seems to me we have prevailed,'' said Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas. ``The President has agreed to many things we wanted.''
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also hailed the executive order as the ``second- best solution'' after the congressional proposal. The only difference, he said, is that the President's order does not call for additional sanctions if the South African government fails to make sufficient progress toward dismantling apartheid.
Democrats were critical. House speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts said the order was ``chock full of loopholes'' and would ``play in Pretoria.'' Rep. William H. Gray III (D) of Pennsylvania, sponsor of the House version of the sanctions bill, warned that the executive order would lead to ``increasing polarization'' and violence.
Diplomatic observers believe the presidential action will have more psychological than practical effect. Past sanctions against South Africa, including a partial arms embargo, have not resulted in bringing about significant change in racial relations. Even the stronger sanctions proposed by Congress are not likely to effect change, in the opinion of most experts, especially given the controversy over the issue.
Mr. Reagan has consistently sought to use quiet persuasion to deal with Pretoria, a policy called ``constructive engagement.'' He decided to impose sanctions only in the face of threatened congressional action and after considerable discussion within the administration.
The President also announced that US Ambassador Herman Nickel will return to Pretoria with a letter stressing Washington's ``grave view'' of the current crisis. Mr. Nickel was recalled for consultations almost three months ago as a sign of displeasure with a number of South African actions, including a raid into Botswana and establishment of an interim government in Namibia.
Because of the lateness of the executive order, many Africa experts believe South Africa will view the move less as a moral statement by the Reagan administration than as political expediency.
``Clearly this is a reluctant President and it will be read that way in South Africa,'' says Robert Rotberg, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Certainly politics weighed heavily in the President's move. Faced with a number of potential confrontations with Congress -- on tax reform, spending bills, and protectionist trade legislation -- the President has wanted to avoid vetoing a bill on sanctions. The legislature appeared to have the votes to override such a veto, which would damage Reagan politically.
For some time GOP congressional leaders with close ties to the administration have been warning the White House it was headed for political disaster on Capitol Hill. Much of the criticism has been directed at White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, who has come in for an avalanche of adverse publicity recently.
Julia Malone contributed to this report.