Johannesburg — President Reagan's decision to impose limited sanctions on South Africa drew mixed reactions here. In the white community, Monday's announcement evoked anger, anxiety, and even some perplexity. Mr. Reagan was once hailed as white South Africa's one true friend, but now, as one conservative white put it, ``He's leading the pack, baying for change.''
Many black leaders, however, are plainly suspicious that Mr. Reagan's real motive is to protect rather than penalize South Africa's white rulers.
South African President Pieter W. Botha responded with controlled anger, describing the measures as ``punitive'' and regrettable. He warned they would reduce the United States' capacity to influence events in South Africa.
Noting that the US ambassador to South Africa, Herman Nickel, was flying to South Africa with a personal message from Reagan, Mr. Botha said, ``I will withhold further comment until I have had the opportunity to study the contents of the message.''
Most of Botha's ire was directed at the US Congress, whose determination to impose sanctions was, Botha hinted, the catalyst that forced Reagan to impose sanctions.
Botha accused the US House of Representatives of not consulting black South Africans and of mounting an economic campaign against his country inimical to the ``welfare and interests'' of the whole subcontinent.
Winnie Mandela, wife of imprisoned black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela, expressed skepticism about the efficacy of Reagan's limited measures. She said the announcement was prompted by a desire to save the Botha government from the harsher measures proposed by the US Congress.
A similar stance was adopted by Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg and black activist. He accused Reagan of ``bending over backwards to save the South African government from the consequences of its own actions.''
The United Democratic Front, a leading anti-apartheid organization, dismissed the sanctions package as ``an imperialist ploy'' designed to give the Botha government breathing space.
``Once again the President of the United States has attempted to come to the rescue of the sinking apartheid ship,'' said Murphy Morobe, a UDF spokesman.
Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, leader of the million-strong Inkatha movement, agreed that Reagan had given the South African authorities a respite from even tougher sanctions. A strong opponent of disinvestment and sanctions, Chief Buthelezi described Reagan's measures as ``restrained and responsible,'' adding, ``I see the measures . . . as warning measures, foretelling of hardening American attitudes if meaningful changes do not take place in our country within the relatively near future.''
Buthelezi coincidentally concurred with US Secretary of State George Shultz in citing Botha's Aug. 15 speech in Durban as a major factor in the change of events that led to Reagan's sanctions decision. In the speech, Botha failed to announce widely expected reforms in South Africa's racial policies.
``The presidential decision is in stark contrast to the views expressed by the European Economic Community . . . that economic sanctions would do more harm than good,'' said Raymond Parsons of South Africa's Association of Chambers of Commerce.
South Africa's director general of finance, Chris Stals, warned that if the disinvestment campaign succeeded South Africa would be unable to play a role in the economic development of the subcontinent.
A major white fear was that the sanctions represent a ``crossing of the Rubicon.'' Once imposed, sanctions are difficult to lift and US sanctions -- however limited and conditional -- will make the imposition of sanctions by other Western nations that much easier.