Will the current ''Free South Africa Movement'' - slated to expand from Washington across the country this week - have any impact on policy either in South Africa or the United States?
Despite a demonstration and arrest list which is beginning to read like a ''Who's Who'' of American civil rights, labor and political leaders and analysts say the fresh outburst against South Africa's apartheid policy is unlikely to have much long-term impact on either Washington or Pretoria.
But it may prompt both governments to adopt slightly more accommodating rhetoric, observers say. And Pretoria might be persuaded to make a conciliatory gesture by releasing 13 black labor and student leaders jailed last month on charges of organizing a two-day, anti-apartheid work stoppage.
Also, the spread of picketing from the South African Embassy to Pretoria's consulates in other US cities, to corporations doing business with South Africa - is sure to boost the morale of those fighting in that country to end Pretoria's system of racial separation.
As Johannesburg bishop-elect Desmond Tutu (winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts to oppose apartheid) told a Washington Cathedral audience in a sermon Sunday: ''Whatever you do to protest this evil system will not go unnoticed among those to whom evil has been done.''
It is also possible that the current wave of protests may lead to some decrease in US investment in South Africa. It has fallen in recent years from a high of $2.7 billionto $2.3 billion.
Although only about one-third of the US companies with operations in South Africa subscribe to the so-called ''Sullivan principles,'' thereby pledging to provide nonsegregated facilities, equal pay, and the like, still, some 75 percent of the workers are covered.
What sparked the current round of protests was apparently a combination of increased repression of blacks by the South African government in recent months and frustration in the US with efforts to get Congress and the administration to apply more pressure for change.
''We felt we had to do something,'' explains Nii Aquetteh of TransAfrica Forum, the research arm of the black foreign policy lobbying group, which has taken the lead in organizing the protest.
Blacks in South Africa protesting rent increases, the quality of black schools, and the new fall constitution (which shares power on a very limited basis with Asians and those of mixed race but not blacks) have led to predawn raids on homes by police and Army officers, beatings, and arrests. US officials say 120 black South Africans have been killed since August.
Virtually all efforts this year to get Congress to act on proposals from stopping the sale of Krugerrand gold coins to halting all new investment were stopped by the Republican-controlled Senate.
The US demonstrations and arrests that now include more than a half dozen congressmen, have continued daily since then.
In many ways, it is the administration's policy toward South Africa which is currently under sharpest attack.
President Reagan was briefed Dec. 3 on that policy by its chief architect, Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.
Technically the issue is largely one of tactics rather than goals. Like the demonstrators, the Reagan administration is on record as opposing apartheid, the ''denationalizing'' of blacks by terming them citizens of so-called homelands, and Pretoria's repressive efforts to suppress the concerns of those who oppose government policies. The administration also supports a dialogue between South African officials and black community leaders.
But critics insist Washington's diplomatic policy of ''constructive engagement,'' aimed at achieving reform through quiet persuasion rather than sanctions and other punitive measures, wipes out any gains US rhetoric might otherwise have scored. Defending it before reporters after his session with the President, Secretary Crocker insisted that the policy includes significant pressure and that charges that the policy has been ineffective are ''rubbish.''
But critics say US policy puts the country in the position of being an apologist for Pretoria. TransAfrica leader Randall Robinson has described it as ''giving comfort to an oppressive regime as its policies worsen.''
In a debate over the weekend at Harvard University, banned South African newspaper editor Donald Woods said that under the four years of Reagan's ''constructive engagement,'' more blacks have died violently in South Africa than in the previous 20 years.
''We need a new Africa policy,'' insists former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. At a press conference this weekend, he said he hopes to meet soon with President Reagan on that topic.
''Human rights policy has been ignored in favor of political expediency,'' said the Rev. Mr. Jackson who described the US-South Africa relationship as one of ''cozy kinship.''
He said he is continuing his efforts to obtain a visa, so far delayed, but not flatly denied, to visit South Africa on humanitarian grounds. He says he has tried five times in four years to get a visa and says that Pretoria ''feels enough support'' from the White House to put him off.
US officials are sensitive to criticism currently leveled at their African policy. But they say the protesters are overlooking a process of change that is quietly but steadily under way and which may already be outside of the South African government's control. They point to a general consciousness-raising on the part of many whites on the apartheid issue and an increased willingness to support power-sharing as in the new constitution.
Secretary Crocker has said the document may or may not be a forward step, but is ''irrevocable'' and may lead to more concessions. US officials also point to the fact that black trade unions have been allowed to form during the last five years. The government also recently tapped a university professor to study black grievances in education.
''From their (Pretoria's) view, they're making tremendous changes, and they realize that change is the price of survival - but I don't think they realize how much change is involved,'' says J. William Zartman, director of the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
''The crucial issues are left unresolved,'' says David Hoffman, a spokesman for the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees.
The protesters insist they can wait. ''We're in for the long haul - we might change our tactics, but we'll stay as long as it takes to get meaningful change, '' says TransAfrica Forum's Mr. Aquetteh.