The Reagan Administration said Wednesday that there is no viable alternative to its policy of "constructive engagement" toward South Africa, but it acknowledged that conditions there have worsened since the Pretoria government declared a state of emergency almost six weeks ago.
Using some of the harshest words the Administration has ever directed at South Africa, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said the attempt by President Pieter W. Botha's government to stifle dissent by "repression" belies the regime's "contention that it upholds Western values."
Redman's remarks contrasted sharply with the softer line President Reagan has taken in his comments on the South African situation. In a radio interview earlier this week, for instance, Reagan described the Botha regime as "reformist" and said Pretoria has "eliminated the (type of) segregation we once had in our own country."
White House spokesman Larry Speakes later conceded that segregation in South African restaurants and hotels continues to be enforced except in some parts of the country's major cities.
Administration officials privately acknowledge that the President's upbeat rhetoric often undercuts the government's effort to send a stern message to South Africa. Nevertheless, both White House and State Department official spokesmen continue to issue carefully worded denunciations of Pretoria's policies--and many assume that if Reagan disagreed with these statements, he would put a stop to them.
"What we say is Administration policy," one official said. "I think we all end up in the same place. Far be it from me to say why the President says what he says."
The Administration's Africa specialists clearly are becoming embarrassed by their inability--despite the controversial policy of constructive engagement--to produce any visible softening of the white minority government's crackdown on black political activity.
Asked at a news briefing if he could cite a single constructive action the South African government has taken since it imposed the state of emergency July 20, Redman avoided a direct answer. But he said the United States is "not satisfied with what has been done."
When reporters pressed the issue, Redman said: "We've seen some words, which appeared to contain some promise. These words need to be turned into deeds and clarified. In the meantime, there have been negative things that have happened which, clearly, we have not been happy with."
Nevertheless, he said, the constructive engagement policy "remains valid, and that's exactly what we're pursuing." He described the policy as "rolling up our sleeves, of getting in there and working on this problem of using the influence which we do have to bring change."
Redman was especially critical of South Africa for the force with which police broke up a planned march in Cape Town on Wednesday and for its decision to ban political activity by the Congress of South African Students.
Describing both actions as "repression," he said the United States deplores the new restrictions on the student organization because it "can only make reconciliation between the government and its opponents more difficult."
"Banning individuals and organizations from political activity is one of the most odious practices of the South African government," he said. "It offends the democratic values of free speech and assembly and accentuates the anger and frustration felt by all the opponents of apartheid.
"The South African government's contention that it upholds Western values is belied by such actions. A society can never effectively come to terms with its problems by repressing dissent."
Administration officials have said previously that South Africa's desire to be considered part of the West might give the United States some leverage to influence its policies. Redman's latest remarks seemed to show, however, that the Administration has developed new doubts about the effectiveness of that plan.
Meanwhile, the National Council of Churches, representing 30 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, urged Reagan to reverse his South Africa policies. In a telegram to the President, the council said:
"We believe it is in the interest of the United States government to help the South African government move toward prudence and sound judgment through the scrapping of the policy of constructive engagement and the signing of legislation supporting economic sanctions against the Republic of South Africa."