The impact of the South African "Muldergate" scandal, and the extroadinary personality of Dr. Eschel Rhoodie, might seem at first sight just another example of ruthless lobbying and corruption, on a minor scale compared to "Koreagate" or the Iranian network; and certainly there was much that was ineffectual, and almost farcical, about the attempts of the South Africans to win friends.

But Rhoodie's methods and attitudes, which can now be pieced together, have a deeper political level. They not only show South Africa's lonely determination to buy support for her policies; they also trade in the most explosive of political commodities, the racial issue. And they show a readiness to exploit it in other nations' internal politics which is reminiscent of German methods in the 1930s.

The ambitious conspiracy of Rhoodie and his colleagues has already provoked a major crisis in South African politics, threatening to implicate the present prime minister as well as the past one. But its ramifications abroad, especially in the United States, raise serious new questions, not only about relations with South Africa, but about abuses of the democratic system.

Dr. Rhoodie himself has made little pretense about the ruthlessness of this methods. In an interview last week he explained how, since South Africa was fighting for survival, "morality flies out of the window." In his job as secretary for information, he was prepared to bribe journalists or politicians to change their views of South Africa; he would secretly buy foreign newspapers, subsidize interest groups and use disinformation to frustrate South Africa's enemies.

A Frontier of Capitalism

IT IS IMPORTANT to try to see Rhoodie's operations from his own viewpoint. He explained it candidly 10 years ago in his book, "The Paper Curtain," which, one of his colleagues explained to me, was the "Mein Kampi" of the propaganda campaign. (The book has now been hastily withdrawn from circulation; I could only find one in the British Museum.)" It explained how a curtain of lies and communist propaganda had cut off South Africa from the West, whose fanatical obsession against apartheid was riddled with hypocrisy; and this curtain could only be lifted by a dynamic campaign of counterattack through unorthodox methods. His government should not try to "sell the unsellable," but should concentrate on showing the great positive achievements of South Africa's economic miracle.

It was this book that attracted the attention of the minister of information, Connie Mulder, who appointed Eschel Rhoodie in 1972 as head of his department; and for the following six years Rhoodie, working quite separately from traditional diplomats and bureaucrats, spent about $80 million on his unconventional methods, in colaboration with his minister and the head of the Secret Service, Gen. Hendrik van den Bergh.

But Rhoodie was much more than a licensed freebooter, a freak supersalesman; he was a symbol of a new generation of prosperous and cosmopolitan Afrikaners who believed that they could open up their country to the world and could bring together the benefits of western capitalism with the firm continuance of apartheid. Rhoodie saw South Africa's future not as an outcast, but as the challenging frontier of capitalism against communism, whose position would eventually be understood by the West, with the help of money and hidden persuasion.

He was also convinced, like his colleague Gen. van den Bergh, that South Africa could come to terms with its black neighbors to the north by befriending and buying the black leaders, and in this field he had undoubted successes, which are still perpetuated. He and the general, sharing Black Africa between them (Rhoodie in the West, Van den Bergh in the East) flew secretly through the black capitals, doling out money, promises and sometimes arms.

Rhoodie has claimed that he paid money to (among others) James Chikerema and Abel Muzorewa, both influential black leaders in Rhodesia, and that he helped to finance the pro-South African party in Namibia, the DTA, which won last December's elections. Further afield, he cultivated black leaders in the Ivory Coast in West Africa, paving the way for a secret visit by Prime Minister John Vorster three years ago and the opening of an air route; he established secret relations with Egypt; and he made a succession of clandestine visits to Israel that prepared the way for Vorster's spectacular visit in 1976 and the Israeli-South African alliance.

But Rhoodie's African successes may have encouraged a simplistic view of Europe and America, while in the meantime his high-spending lifestyle (like James Bond, as one of his Afrikaner colleagues complained) was corrupting him as much as his targets. His generous payments were easily abused by collaborators who pocketed the money without providing any results, and his bold conspiracy to change world opinion often appeared to degenerate into comic fiascos.

His plans to buy newspapers and magazines secretly to purvey the South African viewpoint were constantly frustrated: for he could not press the propaganda without arousing suspicions, and the secret deals made it easy for his collaborators to take him for a ride. In Britain he subsidized a magazine group that never, in the end, provided a South African platform; and he failed in his chief aim, to buy a national newspaper. In France he tried in vain to buy into the magazines L'Express and Paris Match, and he set up an institute which acheived nothing, at great expense.

The American Target

THE FULL EXTENT of South African political subsidies will probably never emerge. Rhoodie claims that, in spite of his own disgrace, over half of his total secret projects - more than 60 of them - have been reapproved by the present government. But the outward results have not been impressive; for South Africa's image, further tarnished by the Soweto riots and the murder of the black leader Steve Biko, has steadily deteriorated through Rhoodie's term of office.

But it was the United States which (as Rhoodie stressed) was the prime target for the campaign and which offered greater scope for Rhoodie's operations: for he could look for comparisons between the two countries' racial problems; he could seek regional support; he could find some strong sympathizers, including Ronald Reagan and John Connally (who was invited to South Africa in a private plane, and showed enthusiastic support); and he could channel money through interest groups to influence campaigns. He has categorically denied (in his interview last week) paying American politicians, but he looked to "various other important groups of influence in the United States."

Rhoodie's most valuable ally was probably John McGoff, the controller of the Panax chain of Michigan newspapers who also had a printing business in South Africa called Xanap, which produced cheap comic books for blacks and educational books subsidized by the government. McGoff was an ideal intermediary: in South Africa he was a close friend of both Van den Bergh and Mulder, and he later became a co-owner with Mulder of a large farm. In the United States McGoff had useful Republican connections, including his Michigan friend, Gerald Ford. When Ford became first vice president and then president, McGoff could carry messages from Prime Minister Vorster; and in 1974 he intervened with Ford to allow the South African defense chief, Adm. Hugo H. Biermann, to enter the United States in spite of a United Nations embargo.

Rhoodie was always concerned with counteracting the influence of The Washington Post, with its attacks on apartheid. In 1974 McGoff approached the editor of The Washington Star, Newbold Noyes, with a bid of $25 million for that paper. Noyes and his executives were skeptical that McGoff, with his small group of papers, could raise the money, but McGoff explained that he was backed by the Dow Chemical family, also from Michigan, who had helped set up his chain. Dow Chemical has no important interests in South Africa, but Pretoria sources have alleged that $6 million was to be contributed from Rhoodie's secret fund. Rhoodie has not confirmed that he authorized this money, but he admitted last week that "it's that kind of operation I would have considered." McGoff was eventually outbid by the Texan Joseph Allbritton, who bought the Star, but in 1974 McGoff also bought the Sacramento Union in California, which was thenceforth friendly to South African policies, carrying favorable reports from visiting journalists.

McGoff's Sacramento Union also soon acquired from Paramount a halfshondon. The agency, in which UPITN, based in London. The agency, in which UPI and the British Independent Television News also held shares, syndicated news film to eight countries. Neither McGoff nor his American chief executive, Clarence Rhodes, had editorial control, with only a one-third vote on the news committee, and McGoff denies receiving any South African support; but in 1976 he was quoted in the South African magazine To The Point as saying that "South Africa needs to tell its story and through something like UPITN we can do it."

In their assault on American politics, Mulder and Rhoodie made much use of the resourceful Washington lobbyist Donald E. de Kieffer, who arranged meetings for Mulder when he visited Washington in 1974, including a talk with Vice President Ford. But their most important instrument was the well-known New York public relations firm of Sydney Baron, who has handled the accounts of several right-wing governments and was hired in 1976 to represent South Africa's interests; the fee was doubled the nest year to $700,ooo, but extra payments were believed to be made for special assignments.

Baron's task was not easy: Soon afterward the Soweto riots broke out in Johannesburg, followed by the murder of Biko, which produced much hostile press coverage. As one of Baron's former associates told me, "You had to pay people to speak up for South Africa." Baron made regular trips to South Africa to consult with Mulder, Rhoodie and others, and he was assisted by Andrew Hatcher, a black PR expert who had once worked in John F. Kennedy's White House and who was much impressed by Rhoodie's bold tactics.

Baron and Hatcher tried to drum up support for South Africa, particularly in states like Texas and California, which had similar problems, and to neutralize attacks. When, for instance, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions called for a worldwide shipping strike against South Africa, Hatcher arranged with George Meany and with Paul Hall of the Seafarers Union to come out against it; and he intervened with his friend the mayor of Oakland to prevent a local boycott of South African trade.

The South Africans gave special attention to California, and devised a wide-ranging "California Program" to offset the attacks on apartheid and to press South African interests. They recruited a black political organizer, Donald Johnson, who was friendly with Ambassador "Pik" Botha (now foregin minister). The South African Information Office in Los Angeles was an important center of activity in encouraging black support. Rhoodie frequently visited California and tried to intervene with the media, sometimes with farcical results: He is believed to have spent a million dollars subsidizing a cable TV station in San Francisco which was supposed to be purveying pro-South African news, but which turned out to be a husband-and-wife outfit with a tiny viewership before it finally closed down.

The South Africans made special use of black PR men to persuade Americans that their regime was not oppressive. As Donald Johnson put it, "Black Americans can work it better than anyone." But Pretoria was often tactless in the way it deployed its publicity. One black PR consultant, Jay Parker in Washington, was hired to represent the Transkei, one of the new "Bantustans" that had been given supposed independence by South Africa; but he was embarrassed to find that the South African government itself was expensively advertising the Transkei's independence, thus casting doubt on the nature of the autonomy. "They poured in money," he complained to me, "without much results."

Targeting Senators

THE SOUTH AFRICANS' broader conceern was with constantly emphasizing the strategic importance of South Africa, with its Cape sea route and its supplies of indispensable minerals, and with encouraging investment and emphasizing the prosperity of the country. Soon after President Carter's election, Baron organized a special conference to interest businessmen in South Africa at the Rye Hilton in New York's Westchester County, where the former secretary of the treasury, William Simon, made a strong speech; another conference was organized in Texas, attended by expresident Ford, for which Rhoodie claims Ford received a fee of $10,000.

These activites may have been within the normal conventions of commercial promotion and aggressive diplomacy. But the more serious and questionable of Rhoodie's projects - as so far disclosed - were aimed at undermining critics of South Africa, and in particular the two senators who were regarded as the chief enemies.

Sen. John Tunney (D-Calif.) had pressed through the 1976 amendment that stopped U.S. involvement on the South African side in Angola. Tunney came up for reelection that fall, in a very tough campaign, first against Tom Hayden and then against S. I. Hayakawa. Rhoodie has boasted that he was responsible for Tunney's defeat by Hayakawa. How or how far he was involved remains unproved, but there was no lack in California of "important groups of influence."

A more serious enemy was Sen. Dick Clark (D-Iowa), chairman of the African subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a forthright critic of apartheid. Andrew Hatcher has told me that on a visit to Pretoria he promised Vorster that Clark would not survive the 1978 campaign in Iowa; Rhoodie is said to have claimed that $250,000 was allocated to unseat Clark last fall.

The only outward sign of South African intervention was a clumsy one, when an official from the embassy in Washington came to Iowa to rebut Clark's criticisms, an act which drew a reproof from the State Department. But Rhoodie's plans were quite separate from the embassy's, and the opponents of Clark, including the anti-abortionists and a flood of right-wing pamphlets emanating from Ohio, showed signs of mysterious financing. By whatever mens, Hatcher's promise to Vorster was fulfilled.

The South African's determination to bring down Tunney and clark brings a new dimension to the problems of foreign intervention; for whatever the involvement, Rhoodie was clearly intent on using any available pressures, and many groups could be vulnerable to infiltration without their knowledge. In the future, even without Rhoodie, this kind of South African subdiplomacy may well continue to be equally ruthless.

Attacking Apartheid

WHAT SHOULD the response of the West be to this escalation of diplomatic warfare? The revelations about Rhoodie are an important warning of how far a determined and embattled nation can "throw morality out of the window," of how secret subsidies will be placed to take advantage of any further racist movement when the confrontation with the West becomes more extreme. Only constant vigilance and scrutiny of foreign funding can prevent such abuses of the democratic process.

But Rhoodie's operations also raise the question of the West's own diplomatic posture toward South Africa. For while Pretoria has failed to make solid friendships with the West, the government has been able to exaggerate its friendships to the whites inside the country - and it give black South Africans a growing sense of isolation or desertion by the West.

While Rhoodie and his men have tried relentlessly to distort the political process in the West, western diplomats (particularly the British) have been frequently passive in their own attitudes inside South Africa, often appearing more interested in encouraging trade than in showing abhorrence of apartheid, a fact that is desperately demoralizing to black South Africans.

There is no justification for western nations to resort to the underhanded methods of Rhoodie and Mulder, but there is every reason for them to make emphatically clear, through every possible medium, the depth of their disagreement with apartheid policies. CAPTION: Picture, Eschel Rhoodie: ambitious plans.