WE doubt he will, but it would be a good idea for President Reagan to visit the African continent. He should accept the invitation from six of southern Africa's black-ruled ``front-line states'' to talk over how best to deal with South Africa's apartheid policies.
Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda may be overstating the case in describing Mr. Reagan as the one man able to keep Southern Africa from a racial explosion. But even on a less ambitious scale, much good could come from such a visit.
Mr. Reagan recently indicated he would be receptive to attending a parley on apartheid if the invitation were extended by Pretoria. The six-nation bid offers him an alternative opportunity.
Accepting it would dramatically symbolize United States concern about apartheid -- and about third world issues more generally. Even some of Reagan's most loyal Republican allies feel such an expression of moral and practical concern has been missing from the President's foreign policy statements and actions. Taking up the invitation could foster stronger ties between the US and moderate black leadership in South Africa and the region.
An African journey could include stops in countries troubled by food, ecological, or population pressures -- broadening its context. Having visited Europe twice, Central America, and Asia, the President surely should visit Africa next.
At home, Reagan needs to recapture the initiative on African policy. The House and Senate have long since run off with the issue in their votes for economic sanctions against Pretoria. The House has endorsed a virtual trade embargo against Pretoria but is expected to opt for the Senate's milder array in hopes of overriding a White House veto.
The President, while adamantly opposed to ``punitive'' sanctions, is expected on his return to Washington September 9 to renew and slightly broaden the mild sanction package against gold coin imports and new bank loans to Pretoria which he offered last year to dissuade Congress from stronger action.
This is at best playing catch-up.
Obviously Pretoria is hard to budge. The countries in the region want outside leverage. President Kaunda, who voted to implement sanctions at a recent mini-Commonwealth meeting, has already been feeling Pretoria's retaliation. The six nations nearest to South Africa -- Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana, and Tanzania -- are in many ways the most economically dependent on South Africa. Only Zimbabwe and Zambia have opted for sanctions.
The visit's purpose could be to discuss South Africa's aggressive role which, Kaunda says, has brought the region close to a racial ``explosion.'' Then there's money: A comprehensive US policy for the region, including aid to the front-line states, would be requested; a large financial commitment need not be made. Any prospect of the meeting deteriorating into diatribe against US-South African policy should be forestalled. The President has certainly been clear about what he will and won't talk about at the summit with Mr. Gorbachev.
Preoccupation with a US-Soviet summit offers one excuse for not going. So does the example of difficulties endured by Margaret Thatcher's government in trying to talk about apartheid while holding out against sanctions.
Leaders of the six nations offered to come to Washington before the end of the year if the President is too busy. But a Reagan visit to Africa would be worthwhile even if it must be postponed.
The Africa invitation is one which former president Jimmy Carter or another president might have quickly seized. It's an assignment Reagan could consider for Vice-President Bush or Secretary of State Shultz in his stead.
But if an African journey is important at this time, why not for the President himself?