JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Coretta Scott King, the widow of the assassinated American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., expressed her reservations here on Thursday about plans to impose international economic sanctions on South Africa, saying they must not inflict "too great a hardship on the people."
Care must also be taken, Mrs. King told newsmen at the end of a controversial 10-day visit to South Africa and Zimbabwe, so that sanctions do not "destabilize the country or the region, politically or economically--and that's a real question and a real concern."
Although she has supported the principle of sanctions for more than a decade as a nonviolent tactic to bring apartheid to an end, Mrs. King said that in "today's context," other measures, perhaps an international aid program, should be undertaken as well "so that people here in South Africa as well as people elsewhere in the region won't suffer."
The United States and other countries should "explore other avenues of nonviolent action that would not be as damaging or last as long as sanctions," Mrs. King said, adding that "one cannot use immoral means to achieve moral goals."
Many prominent South African blacks, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, black nationalist Winnie Mandela, labor leaders and anti-apartheid activists, support strong international sanctions as a means of increasing pressure on the white-led minority government and hastening the end of apartheid.
The United States, the European Communities, the Commonwealth and Japan are all considering a range of sanctions, including boycotts of South African minerals, a ban on new investments here, a break in air links and other curbs on trade with Pretoria.
Mrs. King's views could have an impact on current discussions in Washington between Congress and the Reagan Administration on what additional sanctions the United States will adopt. She said she will discuss her trip here with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, congressional leaders and perhaps President Reagan.
Congress is expected to decide soon on new legislation imposing sanctions, and congressional leaders are attempting to reconcile the tough bill approved by the House of Representatives, cutting all economic ties with South Africa, with a milder one adopted by the Senate. The House leadership has accepted the Senate bill, and a vote by the full House is expected today.
While Reagan continues to oppose sanctions, Republican leaders in Congress have indicated he might accept the Senate version, particularly if "protectionist elements" were removed, in order to avoid the embarrassment, first of vetoing the bill, and then probably having the veto overturned.
Mrs. King said she had come to South Africa as "a peacemaker," wanting to encourage a dialogue between blacks and whites that would resolve the deepening crisis here peacefully.
Mrs. King met on Thursday with Winnie Mandela, the wife of imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, in an emotional 80-minute encounter at the Mandela home in Soweto, the black ghetto southwest of Johannesburg.
"For me, this has been one of the greatest and most meaningful moments of my life," Mrs. King said, tears in her eyes, "and I feel that part of a destiny that has been with me for so many years has been fulfilled. Mrs. Mandela is a great symbol of strength, courage and dedication, . . . and people everywhere love her very deeply for her perseverance and, despite the experiences she has been subjected to, her continuing ability to love and to inspire and to give."
Mandela, equally moved by their meeting, described Mrs. King as "a symbol to what my people keep sacrificing for, . . . a symbol of that peace we have been prepared to give our lives for."
Mrs. King later told newsmen that she wished she had been able to meet Nelson Mandela as well. "I would like to reach out to him and give support to his struggle," she said, comparing his 24 years in prison on charges of sabotage and attempting to overthrow the government to the jail terms served by her husband and other American civil rights activists.
Mrs. King also described President Pieter W. Botha as "a man of God" although she abruptly canceled a meeting she had requested with him on Tuesday after several anti-apartheid leaders, including Winnie Mandela, said they would not see her if she met with him.
Botha is "necessary and important to any solution" of South Africa's problems, Mrs. King asserted, saying she hoped she would be able to talk with him on a return visit early next year when she would be "better prepared for a more substantive meeting."
The controversy continued Thursday over the canceled meeting. Mrs. King had become "a victim of violence . . . of the verbal violence that is so ruthlessly practiced by dogmatic radicals," state-run Radio South Africa said in a commentary reflecting the government's views. "In falling victim to this political extremism, Mrs. King was forced into a gross insult of a head of state."