The delay in the Reagan administrationhs formulation of its Africa policy is giving everybody an opportuntiy to try to prod or threaten that policy in his own direction.
This is happening both inside and outside the United States -- with the right-wing ideologues in Mr. Reagan's own camp at home asserting themselves from closer to the levers of power than ever before.
The process is stirring deep emotions in black Africa and, less obviously, among that segment of US black public opinion that identifies at moments of crisis with the African continent.
Few doubt that President Reagan will shift US Africa policy to less all-out hostility toward white-run South Africa than was the case when Andrew Young was ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter administration. The question is:
How far can the new administration go in that direction without alienating black African opinion and thereby providing an opening for the Soviets in their self-professed role as champions of national liberation movements?
The arrival of President Reagan in the White House has given those Americans in his entourage who are pro-South Africa -- white South Africa --tiatives have the specific blessing of Mr. Reagan or Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. is not clear. Yet the overall change of atmosphere in Washington toward greater sympathy toward the white South African government -- which faces a general election at the end of April -- is encouraging enough for that government to try to exploit to the full.
Last week there was even a report that the Reagan administration was considering inviting white South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha himself to Washington. This was subsequently denied by the State Department. But things are happening that would have been at least surprising during the Carter administration. They include:
* The semi-surreptitious visit to Washington of five senior South African military officers. When the State Department learned of their presence, they left hurriedly -- but not before meeting with the heads of some US government agencies and some members of Congress.
* The visit to Washington a few days later of Dirk Mudge, the white leader of the South African government's chosen instrument to run Namibia (South-West Africa) if and when that territory becomes independent.
* The reported willingness of State Department officials to meet with Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, expected to visit Washington soon. Mr. Savimbi is South Africa's candidate to run Angola. He has had South African support for his operations just north of the Namibian border ever since a Soviet-and Cuban-backed governmetn came to power in Angola in 1976.
(The latter government -- still unrecognized by the US --says the Cuban presence in Angola is an inevitable counterweight to South African help for Mr. Savimbi.)
* The State Department's proposed repeal of the Clark amendment, passed in 1976 over the objections of Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, expressly to prevent US aid to the Savimbi faction in Angola. Present Secretary of State Haig has represented repeal of the amendment as a question of principle rather than as a prelude to US aid to Mr. Savimbi.
* US use of food as a weapon -- such as the cutting off of economic aid to Mozambique to punish the Soviet- and Cuban-backed government in Maputo for its recent expulsion of four US diplomats from the American Embassy there. And this at a time when white South Africa has stepped up its military raids into Mozambique, just as it has into Angola.
* White House National Security adviser Richard Allen's statement March 21 that future US relations with South Africa should be based on US self-interest and not on what he called justified condemnation of the South African government's race policies.
Leaders of black Africa are taking note of all this and making vigorously critical comments.
Nigerian President Shehu Shagari, during his London visit, said of rumors of US help to the Savimbi faction in Angola: "If the US is willing to support rebels in a sovereign African nation it would be very serious."
In a veiled hint at the oil weapon in its possession, President Shagari said Nigeria "will use every means at our disposal of fight the evil system of apartheid in South Africa" and any collusion with or encouragement of South Africa by the Western powers.
Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe said US aid to "the dissident element of Savimbi" would be "extremely repugnant." He added that if the Reagan administration lent help to the "aggressive, hostile" South African government, it would be "most regrettable."
President Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone, current chairman of the Organization of African Unity, said: "The Reagan administration appears to be bent on supporting South Africa at all costs, because [it] believes South Africa is the stronghold of Western civilization in Africa."
Mozambican President Samora Machel charged that the Reagan administration considered "the struggles of peoples for their freedom and independence as terrorism.