THERE is more than one way to influence a government. The United States has tried long and hard, by direct contact and economic sanctions, to encourage South Africa to abandon apartheid for a more just and democratic system. Pretoria insists that the US push amounts to internal meddling, fueling black-on-black violence. The whites-only election coming up in May, which pits the ruling National Party against political rivals on the right, seems to have increased the vehemence of Pretoria's anti-American rhetoric. But its backlash also offers Washington fresh opportunities to forge needed ties with southern Africa's black majority. It is a time for the US to hold to a broad perspective; it may be able to do more now to influence Pretoria, and to gear up for the transition that one day must come, by taking a less direct approach. The Reagan administration should do all it can to expand contacts with a wide range of representative but as yet powerless black leaders within South Africa. The US should also step up contacts with and support for leaders across the border in the black-ruled ``front-line states.''
The recent meeting in Washington between Secretary of State George Shultz and Oliver Tambo, leader of the outlawed African National Congress, is a good example. American conservatives argued against such a high-level meeting, pointing to the ANC's refusal to renounce violence and to the fact that some on the ANC executive committee are members of the South African Communist Party.
To his credit, Secretary Shultz, seizing the opportunity to stress just such US concerns with Mr. Tambo, went ahead.
Washington was not ``endorsing'' the ANC but recognizing its popularity within South Africa and its role as a ``key player'' in any negotiations to come. It can be argued that the more isolated an organization like the ANC, the more likely that radical elements within it will gain the upper hand. The US dialogue should continue at lower levels at ANC headquarters in Zambia.
Inside South Africa, US Ambassador Edward J. Perkins could pursue a similar policy of expanded contacts by following up on the promise made at his Senate confirmation hearings to visit Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned ANC leader. State Department officials say they are pursuing the issue quietly with Pretoria but don't want to subvert the effort with ``blow-by-blow'' publicity. The ambassador should also try to talk with some of South Africa's many political prisoners; he has spoken with a few already at the long treason trial under way in Delmas.
The US should also make clear its economic and moral support for the neighboring front-line states. Most have become so dependent on South Africa for their trade transport routes that the countries are vulnerable to any retaliation Pretoria makes against sanctions. South Africa has also conducted raids against suspected ANC targets in several of the countries and backed insurgents in both Angola and Mozambique. Efforts by the front-line states to develop and repair alternative transit paths through their own territory have often been disrupted by both such raids and rebel fighting.
The US should halt its own covert aid to Jonas Savimbi's anticommunist rebels in Angola. Beyond that, Washington should make a strong, visible commitment to the economic development of South Africa's independent neighbors, signaling Pretoria that any further efforts to destabilize those countries will not be tolerated. The Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference estimates that, just between 1980 and 1985, South African destabilization efforts have cost the group's nine members more than $90 billion.
More policy suggestions on how to bolster the US message are expected to be given within the next few days to Secretary Shultz. A bipartisan, blue-ribbon group known as the South African Advisory Committee has been at work on a package of recommendations since January 1986.
The consistent US aim must be to demonstrate to Pretoria as best it can that dialogue and negotiation are still possible. Enforced white supremecy cannot continue to carry the day.