The South African government contributed to the campaign funds of s everal U.S. politicians as part of a multimillion-dollar plan to win friends in Washington and other Western capitals, according to allegations attributed to a former South African official.

The Johannesburg Sunday Times, in this Sunday's editions, reported that Eschel Rhoodie, former South African information secretary, has made the allegations on a series of tapes he recorded and took with him when he fled the country recently.

The tapes purportedly contain details of a secret propaganda effort run by the South African Information Ministry from 1973 until last year. The campaign has erupted into a major political scandal.

The Johannesburg Time's account mentioned no names of alleged U.S. recipients of South African government money.

If the allegations are true, however, they could have major repercussions on South Africa's relations with the United States, possibly similar to troubles that developed between the United States and South Korea after disclosure of Korean contributions to U.S. politicians.

Last week, Rhoodie and another former official who used to run the campaign said that bribery of influential people in African and Western countries had been a part of their strategy.

Rhoodie, who is wanted here by police on charges of fraud and theft arising from his handling of the secret funds involved, is reported to be attempting to sell his expose to U.S. television networks.

His charges almost certainly will exacerbate the domestic political scandal here stemming from financial irregularities and abuses in the secret propaganda effort.

Over the past six years, Rhoodie's department, which was headed by former information minister Cornelius Mulder, was extremely active in the Unite States, at times entertaining more lavishly than even their Foreign Affairs Ministry colleagues. Rhoodie and Mulder made several trips to the United States, visiting with senators, top military officials, publishers and businessmen. Their activities at times caused consternation in the south African Foreign Ministry, which objected to what Mulder called "backdoor diplomacy."

In addition, the Information Department employed a highly paid lobbyist in Washington, Doanld De Kieffer, as well as the high-powered public relations firm of Sydney Barron in New York. Neither De Kieffer nor the public relations firm was tied to the latest allegations in the Times story.

The The information Department's activity in the United States no doubt stemmed from the importance attached here to the U.S. attitude toward South Africa. The white minority government here regards itself as a bastion against communism and therefore a vital link in this part of the world for U.S. global power. In addition, the whites are prodded by the fear that the U.S. government may side against them and with black African states that are pushing for majority rule, a move the whites believe would spell disaster for them.

The existence of the secret aspect of the Information Department's work was first disciosed by Rhoodie almost a year ago when the press first reported some of the financial abuses. In December a government-appointed commission of inquiry confirmed that more than $73 million had gone into some 160 secret projects run by Rhoodie and the country's former intelligence chief. Hendrik Van den Bergh.

The South African investigators explained only how half of that money was spent, saying that disclosure of how the rest was used would endanger national interests and South Africa's relations with other countries. There is speculation that some of it went into influence-peddling schemes in several countries.

The government investigators blamed Rhoodie, Mulder and Van den Bergh for the financial abuses concluding that they alone were responsible for the entire propaganda exercise. All three men have rejected the commission's findings that they are solely responsible for the secret projects and the financial irregularities that they involved.

Rhoodie has been particularly resentful and has threatened repeatedly to release his tapes if the government did not clear his name. Then last week, he began to set out details of how the secret propaganda effort was carried out.

In interviews with the opposition newspaper, The Rand Daily Mail, Rhoodie claimed that in 1974 he asked for and got authorization to run a psychological war against those who opposed South Africa and its apartheid policy. Former prime minister John Vorster, now state president, had approved the campaign, which was to include bribery, the former information secretary said.

Rhoodie told the Mail: "If it was necessary for me to purchase a sable coat or a mink coat for an editor's wife, I should be able to do so. If it was necessary to send a man on holiday to the Hawaiian Island with his mistress fro a month, then I should be able to do so."

Rhoodie said that he asked Vorster twice whether he understood what he was asking and that both times Vorster allegedly replied that he approved of a propaganda war "in which I should not be concerned about rules and regulations."

A few days later The Mail reported that Van den Bergh said in an interview that disclosure of certain projects that involved bribing politicians to vote favorably for South Africa in a legislative body of a major Western power would lead to the immediate severing of diplomatic relations between that country and South Africa.

Rhoodie's and Van den Bergh's assertions have caused a crisis for the government, which had hoped to contain disclosures about the propaganda effort. Although officials have denied individual knowledge of some secret projects, no one had denied the allegations about bribery of foreigners.

Rhoodie, who is believed to be in Europe, was charged Friday with theft and fraud by South African authorities. The government has canceled his and Van den Bergh's passports.