The Reagan administration is about to face its first big challenge in the United Nations. The challenge is over southern Africa -- or more particularly Namibia (south-West Africa) - on which the General Assembly began yet another debate March 2. It lasted only 15 minutes. The meeting broke up after African members protested the presence of delegates from South Africa, which had been ejected by the Assembly in 1975.
What most of the rest of the world is waiting to see is whether US policy in southern Africa under President Reagan will become more pro-white and less pro-black than it was under President Carter. Mr. Reagan's campaign rhetoric and his appointments since his election suggest that that is what will happen.
The rationale for such a shift would be geopolitical. It would be represented as an essential part of a revised global American strategy to counter Soviet expansionism throughout the world. Not only does presently white-run South Africa command the sea route around the Cape but also its bounteous mineral resources include rare metals crucial in the development of space-age technology.
The shift would be signaled by the US using its veto in the UN Security Council to block economic sanctions intended to punish south Africa for its race policies at home or in the territory of Namibia, which it administers.
The UN debate that opened March 2 is expressly intended by the organization's African members as the first step toward such sanctions.
If the US vetoes sanctions, it could pay a steep price.
First, there is likely to be a flood of hostile criticism unleashed against the US by all black Africa and the rest of the third world.
Second, the Soviet Union will be offered yet another opening for its propaganda in black Africa and the rest of the third world.
Third, there would be the risk of strain with the Americans' European allies, who insist that the West cannot and should not ignore what they call the [black] "African consensus."
Fourth, and most significantly, the US would face the possibility of Nigeria -- America's second biggest foreign oil supplier --using oil as a lever against Washington because of the latter's "unsatisfactory" southern Africa policy.
Nigeria is the giant of the African continent and its biggest oil producer. It has taken the lead in orchestrating black Africa's policy on South Africa -- most recently at the meeting of Organization of African Unity foreign minister's meeting over the past weekend in Addis Ababa.
If Nigeria has a key role when it comes to southern Africa, it has also a crucial part to play in yet another of the continent's major crises. This is the crisis resulting from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's thrust into Chad in an apparent effort to establish a Libyan sphere of influence across a broad swath of the southern Sahara. The danger for the West in this lies in the possibility that the Soviet Union might maneuver Colonel Qaddafi into a surrogate role to further Moscow's overall aims in Africa.
Nigeria has a common border with Chad and suspects Colonel Qaddafi of having had a finger in recent unrest in some of the predominantly Muslim states of northern Nigeria. Nigeria is therefore well placed to help contain Libyan efforts to destabilize or expand into neigboring sub-Saharan lands.
The African foreign ministers discussed Chad as well as southern Africa at their Addis Ababa meeting. On Chad, there were some disagreements and it was decided to refer the question to a OAU summit scheduled for June. On southern Africa, however, there was no hesitation about going ahead with the call for sanctions against South Africa in the debate opening this week in the UN General Assembly.
The African members of the UN had pressed for this debate ever since the breakdown in January of a UN-sponsoed conference in Geneva on the future of Namibia. At that conference, the other participants had hoped that South Africa would agree to a date for implementing a UN plan for UN-supervised elections in Namibia. These would lead to majority rule and internationally recognized independence for the territory. That hope was disappointed. South Africa quickly mad eit clear it intended to stall.
South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha backed away from the UN plan for three apparent reasons:
* His expectation that the new Reagan administration would turn off much of the pressure from Washington felt by South Africa under the Carter presidency.
* His desire to establish a tough image for himself at home and thereby ensure confirmation in office for himself in the general election later this year.
* A parallel desire to defer black majority rule in neighboring Namibia until South Africa had had time to assess the full impact on itself of the recently acquired black majority rule in another neighboring territory, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia).
As the debate was opening at the UN March 2, the new US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, was at UN headquarters for his first formal meeting with UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. The timing was reported to be coincidental. But Mr. Haig was expected to indicate the US would like more time before the sanctions issue came to a head in the UN. One apparent reason: The new administration still has not definitely formulat ed its Africa policies.