CHICAGO — President Reagan, reaffirming his support for South African President Pieter W. Botha, on Tuesday endorsed a suggestion by Botha that the United States and other Western nations join in talks with South Africa in an effort to help work out that country's racial crisis.
And, answering questions at a press conference, Reagan mounted an unyielding defense of his controversial South African policies. He attacked the outlawed African National Congress as a Communist-dominated group bent on causing disruption and seizing control of the South African government.
In his unusually harsh comments on the congress, the President appeared to undercut Secretary of State George P. Shultz's earlier offers to meet with Oliver Tambo, the organization's leader, to discuss ways of solving the crisis.
Botha, speaking to a political rally in Durban, proposed limited talks with neighboring countries and the United States, Britain and West Germany on economic issues and regional security. Britain and West Germany have opposed severe economic sanctions. Reagan said he would also include France in the talks.
Reagan, touching on a wide range of other subjects at his press conference, also said that he is optimistic about the prospects for a summit with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev later this year and expressed the hope "that we're going to make more progress than probably has been made in a number of years" because of economic and political problems now facing Gorbachev.
Reagan called on Congress to support his plan for aid to Nicaragua's anti-Sandinista guerrillas, pledged to see American farmers through their present economic troubles and--responding to a question on the 25th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall--declared that the barrier never would have been built if the United States had acted decisively to prevent it.
It was the increasingly violent crisis in South Africa, however, that dominated Reagan's press conference.
Responding to repeated questions about his policies, the President defended his continued refusal to impose strong sanctions against the Botha government and labeled the African National Congress "the one group" in the country that favors such sanctions.
The ANC "very definitely has been the most radical and wants the disruption that would come from massive unemployment and hunger and desperation of the people because it is their belief that they could then rise out of all of that disruption and seize control. . . ," Reagan said.
That view of the situation, Reagan said, has been transmitted to him personally by black religious leaders and other South African black leaders, including Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, chief of the country's largest tribal group, the Zulus.
Congress reacted coolly last month when Reagan, in a major speech on South Africa, spoke forcefully against major sanctions. But Reagan said Tuesday that regardless of whether members of Congress are ready to accept his arguments that sanctions would only be counterproductive and hurt blacks, communications from prominent black leaders showed they are strongly opposed to sanctions.
He identified one of those expressing this view to him as the leader of "some 4 1/2 million Christians" and said "all of them are deathly, deathly afraid of sanctions."
Reagan did not identify the leader further, however, and it was not clear to whom he referred; leaders of virtually all the major Christian churches in South Africa oppose the Botha government's racial policies and most church leaders, such as Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, have called for sanctions.
At one point, in answer to a question, Reagan said that the African National Congress had been "a good organization" when it was founded early in this century, but that it became infiltrated with Communists soon after the founding of the Communist Party in South Africa in 1921. Now, he said, it is dominated by Communist elements and "we've had enough experience in our own country with Communist fronts" to understand how they operate.
Several times in the past, Shultz has expressed a willingness to meet with the ANC's Tambo and has stressed the importance of freeing the organization's longtime leader, Nelson Mandela, who has been imprisoned for more than 20 years.
But Reagan suggested that any meeting with U.S. officials should be with what he termed "responsible" black leaders.
"Maybe ourselves and some of our allies could be invited to meet with their government representatives and see if we couldn't bring about some coming together of these responsible leaders of the black community," he declared.
Asked to defend the imposition of punitive sanctions against Nicaragua but not South Africa, Reagan insisted that "there is no comparison" between the two countries. South Africans, said Reagan, "are not seeking to impose their government on other surrounding countries."