It was predestined that Prime Minister Pieter Botha's eight-nation tour of Europe would include a triumphant return to South Africa. Botha's tour, ending late last week, was the most ambitious Western tour by any South African leader since the National Party came to power in 1948.
But as the out-of-isolation symbolism of the tour fades, the substance of Botha's trip seems to boil down to this: Europe and South Africa are testing a new kind of relationship that includes different tactics, but not different objectives by either side.
The leaders that received Botha reminded him that their opposition to South Africa's racial policies remains firm. Botha conceded nothing on apartheid and said he was giving Europeans ''information'' about South Africa but would brook no ''interference'' in internal affairs. Yet both sides have shown new willingness to talk.
The new relationship is so tentative that analysts say it warrants no major conclusions yet. They recall that Prime Minister Johannes Vorster started an ''outward movement'' policy in the 1960s, but it fizzled when he failed to deliver on minimum domestic changes.
However, Botha's dialogue with the West may have started from a stronger base. Most analysts believe his acceptance in Europe springs from his regional detente, which includes nonaggression pacts with Mozambique and Swaziland and a limited peace accord with Angola.
If Botha continues to improve relations with black Africa, the West will be less inclined to isolate South Africa, analysts suggest. But as long as South African blacks opposes the government, Pretoria cannot fundamentally change relations with the outside world, they say.