The significance of the milestone meeting in Washington today between Secretary of State George Shultz and the head of the outlawed African National Congress will depend less on what is said during the meeting than after it. It is then that the key actors in evolving United States policy toward South Africa - Washington, Pretoria, and the ANC - will help determine whether the meeting becomes a one-time symbol or a major political event.
One effect of the encounter seems certain, and irreversible. By officially receiving ANC President Oliver Tambo, the Reagan administration is extending a large measure of formal recognition to insurgents that both the South African authorities and its own more staunchly conservative members have long criticized as pro-Soviet ``terrorists.''
In the administration lexicon - to revive words used to journalists by Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost on an Africa visit in preparation for the meeting - the ANC is now acknowledged as a key ``player'' in any negotiated resolution of the conflict in South Africa.
But still to be determined is what this will mean for long-term US policy toward the South African government. Especially given the objections to the Shultz-Tambo meeting by conservative Republicans, some political analysts here assume that the administration may move publicly to play down the significance of the encounter.
This would be done by reemphasizing longstanding US criticism of the ANC's use of violence and of its links with Moscow. It would also include portraying the Tambo talks as a step toward trying to bring the ANC and Pretoria together to discuss overhauling South Africa's political system.
If so, the Americans can probably count on a quick splash of cold water from both the putative negotiating partners. The South African government, under strong pressure from the extreme right as a white national election approaches, seems less open than ever to the idea of negotiating anything with Mr. Tambo - that is, unless he and the ANC publicly renounce use of violence as a political tool.
Tambo and his colleagues seem likewise as reluctant as ever to make such a vow.
When jailed ANC patriarch Nelson Mandela was offered such a deal more than a year ago, he responded in effect by saying that the South African police and Army must first renounce violence themselves. Since then, South African President Pieter Botha has cracked down hard on unrest.
ANC sources in Lusaka, Zambia, where the ANC is headquartered, suggest that this makes talk of an ANC nonviolence vow insultingly ill-placed.
Other post-meeting scenarios are possible, though less likely.
The one generating the most lively speculation among South African political pundits would involve a high-profile US emphasis on the ANC's position as the most important conduit for black opposition to discriminatory race statutes that Washington has also condemned.
This could put strong pressure on Tambo to make clarifications on issues he and the ANC have long left vague.
How important in policy terms are the ANC's ties with the South African Communist Party, and with Moscow? Where does the ANC's current advocacy of violence in South Africa stand in the organization's overall political strategy? And, perhaps most important, precisely what kind of political system does the ANC seek in a post-apartheid South Africa?
This alternative US approach, however, would almost certainly place relations with Pretoria, already at their chilliest since the early years of the Carter administration, in the deep freeze.
Fuming over congressional sanctions legislation, senior South African officials have said in recent months that this implied tilt toward the ANC has greatly minimized any US role in suggesting the shape of future race-policy reforms, much less in mediating talks between white and black here.
In this context, a significant signal was South Africa's recent effective shutdown of the New York Times bureau here. But perhaps more significant was the government's determined disregard for official pleas from the US that it reconsider the ouster of the New York Times reporter.
Political analysts here feel certain that should the Americans' ANC ``tilt'' go any further, in Pretoria's view, Washington can expect more and louder such signals in the months ahead.
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.