SOUTHERN Africa has a simple wish for Christmas: more rain. If the generally encouraging early rains of the Southern Hemisphere summer continue for the next few months, southern Africa will begin to pull out of its worst drought in a century. But if the rains slack off, the region's food situation, now called an ongoing ''crisis,'' could turn into a ''disaster'' next year, agricultural officials and relief agency workers warn.
At the moment probably hundreds of thousands of people in southern Africa are suffering from malnutrition and related diseases, analysts say. Many thousands are estimated to have died during the past three years of drought.
''There is still a drought in this part of the world,'' says one expert who has recently toured the key farming regions of South Africa. ''There are going to be shortages in 1985,'' he predicts, referring to the region as a whole. Yet this analyst sees a reasonable prospect that the region will produce substantially more corn - it is a staple of the local diet - next April than it did in 1984. This of course depends on a ''normal'' rainfall.
Though the critical corn crop was just planted in late November and early this month, making predictions hazardous, a number of experts say South Africa and Zimbabwe - two of Africa's best agricultural producers - could return to food self-sufficiency next year. Both countries had to import corn this year. The prediction for South Africa means it would grow enough also to sustain its customs union partners - Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana.
Mozambique, one of Africa's hardest hit countries, is still in dire need of food assistance and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. Yet food aid workers in Maputo, Mozambique's capital, say things are ''improving'' there, thanks to Western aid, better government policies, and an improving weather pattern.
But even with a larger regional food output in 1985, analysts say the past three years of drought leave a legacy of low water levels behind dams, deteriorated soil conditions, overgrazed lands, loss of livestock, and deeper rural poverty that will take years to overcome.
The drought also has underscored the huge task southern Africa faces in feeding itself in the longer term. A recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization warns that ''the future portends disaster'' if the region's population keeps rising rapidly and food production keeps falling as it has since 1981.
South Africa, one of a small number of nations in the world that is at times a net exporter of food, is struggling simply to regain a position where it can feed itself and the members of its customs union. In good years, such as 1981 when South Africa produced a record 14 million metric tons of corn, the country exports up to 1 million metric tons to other African countries.
South Africa does not disclose who these countries are, but Zaire, Zambia, and Mozambique are almost certainly among them. In the past two years, drought has forced South Africa itself to import corn. Corn production in 1984 in South Africa was approximately 4.2 million metric tons, necessitating about 2 million metric tons of imports to meet the needs of South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. (South Africa is the major producer of the customs union, by far.)
As in much of southern Africa, early rains in South Africa have been promising since the corn was planted late last month and this month. At this stage farm analysts are expecting a crop of a size - about 7 million metric tons of corn - big enough to satisfy the needs of the customs union countries. But few expect a surplus for exports. And should the rains falter, the crop could be substantially smaller than that needed for local consumption.
Meanwhile, relief workers in South Africa are busy helping rural blacks survive the drought and a severe and prolonged recession.
''Our view is that there is no famine in this country. But there is malnutrition due to inadequate feeding,'' says Stan Chilvers of the California-based World Vision relief agency.
The Operation Hunger relief project is currently helping feed about 620,000 rural blacks in South Africa. After a financial crisis in October, Operation Hunger - which was started in 1980 under the auspices of the South African Institute of Race Relations - has raised more than $2 million in new donations to continue its relief effort.
Drought in South Africa has severely aggravated hunger and malnutrition among blacks in the rural areas. Operation Hunger national manager Ina Perlman says the problems go beyond the drought. She says the black ''homelands'' are overcrowded, due to government policies that force as many blacks as possible to live there, making subsistence agriculture impossible for many. And conditions in the black rural areas are worsening as black farm laborers are laid off (due to drought and farm mechanization) and more blacks in the rural areas are unable to find jobs in the cities (due to the recession). Mrs. Perlman says that even under normal conditions, tens of thousands of black children die each year because of malnutrition and related diseases. The drought has swelled these numbers, though no one knows by how much.
Mozambique appears to be the worst hit in the region. One food aid worker from East Africa says his work in Mozambique has shown him that country should be ''second on the list'' behind Ethiopia of African countries facing a food crisis. He emphasizes that Mozambique is in a less severe predicament than Ethiopia. And he sees the Mozambique situation moving in the right direction. The aid worker says: ''The food emergency situation is severe but improved compared to the past few years.''
There are indications, he says, that the rainfall pattern is returning to ''normal.'' But he cautions this trend could easily reverse over the next couple of months, when the rains will be critically needed. Any improvements in Mozambique must be measured against just how troubled that country, independent only since 1975, has been over the past few years.
Drought from 1981 devastated central and southern Mozambique, more than halving corn and rice production, and in 1983 wiping out altogether the country's vegetable harvest. Food reserves were exhausted, and by one conservative estimate tens of thousands of Mozambicans died from starvation in the last three years.
Aggravating the food crisis, Mozambique's economy virtually collapsed during the same period, leaving a dire scarcity of consumer goods and a currency that was almost valueless, says one diplomatic source in Maputo. Shortages of even the most basic consumer goods - soap and shoes for instance - have forced many of the rural stores to go out of business. With nothing to buy, small farmers stopped producing any surplus of crops since cash was of no use.
Farmers were also given inadequate incentive from Mozambique's Marxist government. Crop prices were kept too low to subsidize urban dwellers, one analyst in Maputo says. He adds, though, that the government has begun raising crop prices.
Compounding these problems, the Mozambican government has faced in the past few years a mounting guerrilla insurgency. The Mozambique National Resistance (MNR) has been a menace in the countryside, disrupting cultivation and attacking the transport network to such an extent that food distribution is impossible in some areas.
The MNR campaign is intensifying, say sources in Maputo. They point out that the government has begun rationing electricity in the capital due to MNR attacks on power installations. Attacks on power sites in the countryside have been fairly routine in recent years.
Resolution of the food crisis in Mozambique will take a ''long term effort,'' says one analyst. The insurgency will have to be controlled, the economy will have to be revitalized, and farmers will have to produce more, he says.
While waiting and hoping for a good harvest next April, Mozambique will need lots more food aid. One independent analysis by a Western government states that even with over 300,000 metric tons of food aid this year, the country still appears to face an immediate shortage. Between now and next April, local production, donations, and commercial imports will still fall close to 200,000 metric tons short of the need, according to the report.
The United States, the European Community, the Netherlands, Canada, France, Italy, and Japan all have provided Mozambique with food aid. Hunger in Mozambique is driving thousands of refugees into neighboring Zimbabwe, where the food situation is considerably better.
The rainy season in Zimbabwe is only a month old. But so far the signs are good. ''The informal indications are that the maize crop could be very big, making us (Zimbabwe) self-sufficient and even providing a buffer of two or three months of supply,'' says one knowledgeable source in Harare.
For the first time since independence in 1980, Zimbabwe imported corn in 1984 . Two large corn crops in 1980 and 1981 allowed Zimbabwe to remain a food exporter through 1983, helping other African countries like Tanzania and Mozambique.
While Zimbabwe was not able to feed itself in 1984 and had to rely on food grants from the US and imports from Thailand and Argentina, people did not go without food. ''There has been no starvation of Zimbabweans,'' says one diplomat in Harare. ''There has been some malnourishment, though, in the remote areas,'' he adds.
Zimbabwe's commercial farming sector has remained strong and, under proper climatic conditions, will be able to produce more food, analysts say.
It is hoped that Zimbabwe will be able to feed itself without outside assistance in 1985. But no one is predicting that the country will be able to export corn next year.
Yet even with good rains in the coming weeks, analysts in Harare says it will take some time to recover from the drought. Dam levels are still low, many below 30 percent of capacity, and precious supplies from the dams have in some circumstances had to be diverted from agriculture to the cities for human and industrial consumption.
The drought, one analyst says, has put ''tremendous stress'' on the communal areas, where more than 6 million blacks live. Grazing lands have been all but denuded and there has been a considerable loss of livestock.