Washington — The Reagan administration is in a quandary over its southern Africa policy. There has been a hard-fought battle over sanctions against South Africa. And now there is debate within the administration over when Secretary of State George P. Shultz should visit the region. State Department sources say that concern over the wisdom of an immediate Shultz visit, combined with scheduling problems created by next week's Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Iceland, could delay the trip for several months.
Mr. Shultz was to have met with top officials in South Africa and in several neighboring ``front line'' states. There were also plans for Shultz to meet with African National Congress (ANC) leader Oliver Tambo -- a meeting designed to signal Pretoria that despite President Reagan's opposition to economic sanctions, he is against apartheid.
(Interview with ANC official, P. 3.)
A trip to southern Africa by Mr. Shultz early this month was one of several measures, including the appointment of a black US ambassador to Pretoria, intended to sweeten President Reagan's veto of sanctions legislation.
One concern is Shultz's possible reception in southern Africa. The sources point out that he would go as the representative of an administration widely, if perhaps incorrectly, perceived in southern Africa to be resisting efforts to end apartheid. In addition, Shultz would be going empty-handed in terms of major new policy initiatives toward the region. The administration has reportedly abandoned thoughts, briefly entertained, of seeking $500 million in economic aid to the front-line states to help blunt the expected effects of sanctions.
``Not only did the President not support sanctions, but he backed away from the aid package,'' says Pauline Baker, a specialist on southern Africa at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``I think [Shultz] would get a terrible reception. It would be a roast.''
``They'd meet with him,'' an administration source adds. ``The question is, how would they treat him?''
A second concern is that a visit to South Africa now would be ineffectual in terms of persuading Pretoria to make the political changes long urged by the US.
``It's too late to send Shultz now,'' says one congressional source, who adds that at this point only an active role by the President himself is likely to have any effect on Pretoria. ``He [Shultz] should have gone two years ago when it might have done some good.''
There's also the risk that in the aftermath of the sanctions veto, Shultz would be snubbed by black leaders, just as Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Geoffery Howe, was in a visit to the country last summer.
But backers of an early Shultz visit to the region say a trip is still needed to help narrow differences between the administration and Congress on South Africa policy and to strengthen US contacts with regional leaders.
``It may be the right thing at the wrong time,'' a State Department official says. ``But if it helps us get started in a serious dialogue, it's still worth it.''
An outside observer notes that for Shultz to back out now might be taken in the region as yet another rebuff by the Reagan administration. ``Not to go now would be taken as a slap in the face,'' says Carollee Bengelsdorf, a government professor at Hampshire College. ``After the [administration's] stand on sanctions, it would be a double whammy.''
State Department spokesman Charles Redman said Wednesday that Shultz is ``still anxious to go to Africa at an early time.'' But officials are said to welcome the reprieve from an early decision on the trip provided by Monday's announcement of the Reagan-Gorbachev mini-summit.
Last summer the administration ordered a review of US policy toward southern Africa, with a view to finding means to cushion the economically vulnerable front-line states from the effects of US sanctions.
One result was a proposal for a five-year, $500 million aid package designed to help wean the front-line states from dependence on South Africa, which controls trade lines and energy and food supplies to the region. The money was to be used principally to upgrade port facilities and rail lines to inland markets.
But administration officials are said to have concluded that attempts to wrest $500 million from a Congress that earlier this week rejected a $200 million supplemental aid package for the Philippines would be quixotic.
The aid plan, which would have included support for several Marxist governments, was also considered at variance with US support for anticommunist insurgents operating in Angola -- and with the moral support provided by many US conservatives for antigovernment rebels in Mozambique.
One State Department source also notes that top US officials were cool to the idea of being forced to pick up the tab for a sanctions policy they opposed.
``We don't have any obligation to use US taxpayers' money to bail [the front-line states] out of a situation they got themselves into in the first place by supporting sanctions,'' this source comments.
Neither President Reagan nor Secretary Shultz has ever spoken with South African President Pieter W. Botha, either in person or by phone.
An administration source speculates that if and when Shultz does visit the region, he may propose a Reagan-Botha meeting. South Africa experts say Mr. Botha has long wanted such a meeting and that the prospect of a ``summit'' between the two leaders might be used to exact concessions in the form of a softening of South Africa's apartheid policy.