GABORONE, Botswana — For the African National Congress, the scheduled meeting in Washington on Wednesday between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Oliver Tambo, president of the outlawed black liberation movement, is a political breakthrough with immense potential in the group's long struggle against South Africa's white-led minority government.
The African National Congress sees the meeting as long-sought American recognition of its central role in any resolution of the conflict in South Africa and thus as a major boost in its standing at home and internationally.
"The significance should be very clear to white South Africans: They can no longer expect U.S. assistance to prop up minority rule," Thabo Mbeki, one of the top officials of the African National Congress, said in an interview in Gaborone before leaving for the United States.
'Lost Its Last Ally'
"Pretoria should know now that it not only has lost its last ally in perpetuating apartheid, but that Americans are enlisting in our struggle for a democratic, nonracial and just South Africa."
Gone is the "delusion," Mbeki said, that "there can be a settlement of the South African conflict without the ANC, that the regime in Pretoria can 'reform' its way out of its predicament, that we can be ignored or dealt with as a bunch of so-called terrorists. Not even the Reagan Administration believes such nonsense any longer, and that is why it wanted these talks with us."
The significance of the Shultz-Tambo meeting has not been lost on Pretoria. The meeting gives U.S. recognition not only to the legitimacy of black grievances but also to the African National Congress as a major spokesman for the country's black majority and, perhaps, as an eventual alternative to the present South African government.
State-run Radio South Africa, in a commentary reflecting official thinking in Pretoria, denounced the talks in scathing terms as "subverting the aspirations of an entire people."
An editor of the leading Afrikaans newspaper Beeld wrote that Washington has given the African National Congress "the opportunity of gaining respectability in the eyes of the Western world, an opportunity it has grabbed with both hands."
A media campaign launched in Washington by 14 conservative Republican congressmen against the Shultz-Tambo meeting has been treated by pro-government newspapers in South Africa as an attempt to prevent the United States, as one editorial writer put it, from making "a historic blunder, one that could lose its last friends in Africa and greatly weaken its influence worldwide."
Not since Congress overrode President Reagan's veto and imposed economic sanctions on South Africa last fall has the government in Pretoria felt so vulnerable.
'Best Friend, Worst Enemy'
"When you see your best friend sitting down with your worst enemy to discuss what to do about you, and you don't even get an invitation, I think you have cause to be worried," a senior South African official remarked in Cape Town earlier this month, asking not to be quoted by name.
"Whatever the American motivations might be, this sort of meddling will hurt us, all of us, black and white alike, because it will encourage the ANC to fight and not talk peace and compromise."
Mbeki, who is accompanying Tambo as the African National Congress information director and a member of its national executive committee, said the group does see the Shultz-Tambo talks as an opportunity to help reshape U.S. policy in southern Africa.
He said the talks may present a chance to replace the Reagan Administration's all-but-abandoned approach of "constructive engagement" with one more likely to bring a quick end to South Africa's apartheid system of racial separation and minority white rule.
'Policy is Discredited'
"We are going to the United States at a time when the American administration has no real policy in southern Africa," Mbeki said. "Look, the secretary of state even needs public permission to use the words 'constructive engagement' at a press conference because that policy is so discredited, but there is nothing to replace it yet." He continued:
"This is probably the best time in the six years of the Reagan Administration that the American public has the possibility to make a serious input into the formulation of U.S. policy for this region, and we will be talking with business, the churches, the black community, academics and others about what we think should be part of that policy.
"The American people are against apartheid, and Congress is ready to take action, further action."
Tambo's two-week American trip, which is taking him to Los Angeles, New York and Chicago as well as Washington, is part of an increased African National Congress effort to bring the United States even more into the front line in the group's fight to bring down the government of President Pieter W. Botha.