FIRST QUESTION: Were those American military attaches that South Africa has just expelled for "spying" actually spying? The United States, which retaliated by ousting two South African attaches in Washington, doesn't really bother denying it. Spying, or learning as much as you can about the other fellow's military establishment, much of which is secret, is what military attaches are paid to do everywhere. The exchange of attaches is the way countries balance out the risks.

Second question: Since the South Africans are big boys, why did they announce sharply and without warning that they were ousting the attaches, rather than complain quietly through diplomatic channels, as they have in the past? Probably it has to do with the general tizzy the South Africans are in these days. Attacks on the white minority government for the "Muldergate" influence-buying scandal have made that government eager to show its toughness to its nervous Afrikaner constitiuency. Deterioration in Namibia and Rhodesia may have induced Pretoria to take a step that it thinks would demonstrate to Washington that it cannot be pushed around

In Namibia, the Western-sponsored plan to bring the former South African colony to independence with the cooperation of both Pretoria and the SWAPO guerrillas is tottering. The evidence is that South Africa has lost a good bit of the confidence it seemed earlier to have that the Western countries could bring in a fair plain. It may yet go ahead and set up in power a responsive and dependent, though multiracial regime that the rest of the world will regard as its client and that SWAPO will continue to oppose in the field. The United States had offered the incentive of an unprecedented Carter-P.W. Botha summit if Namibia went well. That opportunity would be lost. In these circumstances, South Africa's denial yesterday that its position on spying wasmeant to throw the Namibia talks off the track is perhaps the only positive sign.

In Rhodesia, recent moves by Pretoria hint at a decision to support unequivocally the multiracial government sure to come out of this month's "internal" elections, even though that regime, too, will be regarded as illegitimate by many other countries, and Soviet-supported guerrillas will continue to oppose it in the field. Only an eventual step-up of guerilla activities can be expected to result from such provocations as the Rhodesian raid on guerrilla leader Joshus Nkomo's home in the Zambian capital of Lusaka early Friday.

In short, facing immense uncertainty in two erst-while buffer states and needing every ounce of Western good will available, South Africa finds itself in a nasty fight with the United States over an artificial issue-"spying." The sad thing is that the furor over spying may be the least of it. The most of it may be South Africa's apparent readiness to back away from a foreign policy of conciliation, notably in Namibia, and to pursue with new vigor a course that can only lead to greater confrontation. Prime Minister Botha has yet to explain how this would benefit South Africa.