After two false starts, the Reagan administration appears to have settled on a candidate to become the first black United States ambassador to South Africa. President Reagan is expected to announce next week the appointment of Edward J. Perkins, a career Foreign Service officer and currently US ambassador to the West African nation of Liberia, to the important Pretoria post.
Ambassador Perkins would assume his new duties in October barring unforeseen complications, such as the allegations of questionable business dealings that sidetracked the administration's initial choice, black North Carolina businessman Robert J. Brown. A second candidate, former assistant secretary of state Terence A. Todman, was reportedly uninterested in the job.
If confirmed by the Senate, Perkins would replace Herman W. Nickel, a political appointee who has been closely identified with the Reagan administration's controversial policy of ``constructive engagement,'' or quiet diplomacy, toward South Africa.
Formal announcement of Perkins's appointment is expected to coincide with the extension of an existing presidential order, due to expire Sept. 9, imposing limited sanctions on South Africa. The two moves are seen as part of a strategy by the President to regain control over US policy toward South Africa and to head off the imposition of tougher sanctions by Congress.
Congressional sources say the anticipated appointment of Perkins would be no substitute for abandoning the policy of constructive engagement in favor of strong economic sanctions.
``Such a move means little by itself,'' says one congressional expert on Africa. ``It's the policy that's important and not the color of the ambassador.''
Impatient with the slow pace of political reform in South Africa, both the House and Senate last summer voted strong antiapartheid bills.
Mr. Reagan forestalled the threat of congressionally imposed sanctions last year with his Sept. 9 executive order. To succeed with the same strategy this year, the President would have to go much further, by invoking economically punitive measures against Pretoria.
In a television speech on July 22, President Reagan repeated his longstanding opposition to such measures, urging Congress and America's European allies to ``resist this emotional clamor for punitive sanctions.'' But faced with the opposition of ``veto-proof'' majorities in both the House and Senate and with the prospect of a major political embarrassment, the President may now be prepared to make some concessions to the inevitable.
House and Senate conferees will meet, perhaps as early as next week, to reconcile differences in the two sanctions bills. House sources yesterday refuted news reports that House members would embrace the Senate bill without change. For the House to go along, say these sources, major loopholes in the Senate bill would have to be closed, such as one that allows short-term trade loans that currently account for two-thirds of private bank lending to South Africa.