THANKS to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Africa could become more central to this year's presidential election than even before. Intent on mobilizing persons of African descent as voters, Mr. Jackson has articulated a clear position on the United States role in and toward Africa.
For Mr. Jackson, the way in which the US deals with and responds to Africa provides an index of this country's sensitivity to blacks in general. That is what he tells his audiences and his competitors, raising their own consciousnesses at the same time.
''Africa has to be considered as important to the US, as much a part of US foreign policy, as the European nations, Israel, Japan, Canada, Russia, and the Latin American states,'' Mr. Jackson told a meeting at the United Nations earlier this year.
Mr. Jackson has been more aware than the other presidential contenders of the crisis of hunger in Africa. The long rains have failed in much of southern and eastern Africa for the third year in a row. Countries once able to feed themselves must look overseas for aid. Mr. Jackson advocates much more assistance. The ''teaspoons of pitiful aid with strings attached'' that African nations receive from the US must be increased.
But Mr. Jackson has not dealt with details, nor with the complicated problem that the distribution of more food, even surpluses from North America, deprives African nations of a need to develop market incentives for the growing of their own crops.
In response to African assertions that American and European trade policies wreak economic havoc upon the economies of their continent, Mr. Jackson has advocated an end to US trade restrictions on African raw materials. He wants the US to give to African countries the same economic and trade advantages now given to Europe.
Mr. Jackson visited South Africa five years ago, and it is the Reagan administration's friendly posture toward that country which draws his fiercest criticism. Calling the Reagan policy of ''constructive engagement'' with South Africa ''a disgrace,'' Mr. Jackson has on several public occasions promised as president to bar US investment and trade with South Africa.
In order to end apartheid, or racial segregation, in South Africa, Mr. Jackson wants to impose sanctions. He has said nothing specifically about withdrawing the tax benefits that make it possible for American companies to thrive in South Africa. Nor has he spelled out the mechanisms which would put pressure upon South Africa to change for the better.
What Mr. Jackson has said is that he favors placing some kind of trade restrictions on South Africa similar to those used against Poland in recent years (but now abandoned). He would also withdraw the benefits that South Africa receives by its technical designation as a most-favored-nation trading partner. Mr. Jackson may be unaware that South Africa has a sugar quota allocation in the American market, too.
Mr. Jackson, along with President Reagan, undoubtedly wants to see South African control over Namibia cease, and the territory (also called South-West Africa) become independent. That object, the central focus of ''constructive engagement,'' remains elusive. Mr. Jackson has not suggested a more successful way of compelling South Africa to let Namibia go. Presumably, he would try some kind of diplomatic pressure and sanctions.
Mr. Jackson has said little about the 25,000 Cuban soldiers who since 1975 have helped support the government of Angola against South Africa and a South African-backed insurgency in southern Angola. The stationing of those Cubans in Angola has prevented American recognition of Angola and provided a convenient obstacle to South Africa's removal from Namibia. It is the moving of the Cubans and the containment of the insurgency that are now central to efforts to bring peace to Angola and Namibia.
It is clear from Mr. Jackson's support for a Palestinian homeland, his backing of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and his broad emphasis on the needs of the third world that as president he might be friendlier than previous American leaders to those groups which want to end white rule on South Africa by pressure.
During his 1979 visit Mr. Jackson described South Africa as a ''terroristic dictatorship'' and compared apartheid to ''the ungodly acts of Hitler.'' To blacks near Johannesburg and Cape Town, he advocated massive civil disobedience and opposition to foreign investment.
Whites disliked his words, but he was also criticized by the more radical Africans for dealing with the leaders of African homelands and for associating with white cabinet ministers. One called Mr. Jackson ''a diabolical Western agent'' whose interests were not the same as those of black South Africans.
Mr. Jackson's attempt to smooth over differences between the leaders of various black political groups in South Africa, and what they called his all-knowing attitude, exasperated others. As antagonistic as he was to the policies of the white government, his visit was not well received in all black circles.
Mr. Jackson does not now differ dramatically in his anti-South African or pro-African stands from the positions taken publicly by the Democratic candidates, Walter Mondale and Sen. Gary Hart. Nevertheless, for Mr. Jackson, Africa is a salient issue. Only he has the standing and the interest to dramatize the relevance of Africa for American politics in the 1980s.