It was the 11th or 12th of March, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was sitting in her New York office, "minding my own business," when someone -- she won't say who -- called to ask if she would be interested in meeting with some visiting South Africans "who were experts on strategic questions."

"I said yes," Kirkpatric said later. "I didn't inquire who they were, what their names were, what their affiliations were. I knew nothing. That may seem like a foolish policy on my part and it may be a foolish policy on my part . . . I think I'm probably too careless for a Cabinet officer about whom I meet with."

That answer led to a meeting with Lt. Gen. P.W. Van der Westhuizen, chief of South African military intelligence, and a still-simmering controversy that has damaged the Reagan administration's image with black Africa and black Americans, and left Kirkpatrick feeling unjustly maligned by the press and by a call for her resignation by the Congressional Black Caucus. Columnists contrasted the lack of any reprimand to Kirkpatrick to the firing on former U.n. Ambassador Andrew Young in 1979 for an unauthorized meeting with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In an interview here, Kirkpatrick maintained repeatedly that she was being pilloried not only for an innocent mistake but for something that was not even a technical violation of policy, because the Reagan administration has not yet decided that it will continue what has been U.S. policy since 1962 in refusing official contact with high-ranking South African military officials.

Her remarks suggested that, if nothing else, reaction to the visit of Van Der Westhuizen and three other South African officers has helped prod the administration into announcing some portions of an Africa policy long "under review" and undefined.

As enunciated by Kirkpatrick, it is a policy that will in substance resemble a return to the kind of "communication" with the white government practiced under the Nixon and Ford administrations -- keeping criticism of South African policies private on the theory that nothing is to be gained by public denunciation. But the State Department will not want to call it by that name for fear of antagonizing important black African states.

Both she and President Reagan believe that South Africa's apartheid system "is an objectionable, unacceptable kind of policy. It is quite clear on the record that Ronald Reagan abhors racism and racial discrimination." Kirkpatrick added that she had said that to Van der Westhuizen when he had pressed her on his hopes for "a sentimental rapprochement."

But in a statement that marked the shift of emphasis in African policy that has occurred since Jimmy Carter left office, she added that "we have multiple values involved as is often that case in real life. There as multiple values, and I believe very much that the spread of communism and communist strength in southern Africa is not compatible with the development of freedom and indepence in the nations of Southern Africa."

For the ambassador, a 54-year-old professor, author and Democrat, the incident has not been a pleasant introduction to life in the higher echelons of government. It has been, she says "highly traumatic for me."

Last week, Kirpatrick's press secretary called to say that Kirkpatrick's silence has perhaps contributed to what Kirkpatrick believes has been widespread misinterpretation of her actions, and offered The Washington Post an interview to set the record straight. In a 90-minute session in her State Department office Friday, Kirkpatrick spoke about the South Africans and about a job that she says has been a learning experience.

As part of that job, Kirkpatrick said, she attends policy sessions "at the State Department" and is active "in some considerations at the National Security Council [and] some at the Cabinet level."

But although she came to Reagan's attention when he liked what she had to say about how the United States should relate to authoritarian governments, the new U.N. ambassador does not make foreign policy.

"let's be clear about that. I am not a major officer of foreign policy making in this administration. I wouldn't want to say anything that left any misunderstanding about that."

Her role, she said, is to carry out policy, and "anytime I can't live with the government's policies, I'll resign. . . . I will not violate them."

Although she said she was "totally unaware, utterly unaware" of the fact that the U.S. government, beginning with the Kennedy administration, had a policy of not permitting high-level South African military officials in the country, Kirkpatrick said her meeting with the South Africans broke no rules. Since all past U.S. policies are "under review" by the Reagan administration, she said, "there is no such policy" now in existence.

The "review" status of African policy under Reagan is one thing, Kirkpatrick said, that makes her situation different from Young's.

"Andrew Young violated a policy of his government," she said. "My government doesn't have a policy; therefore I didn't violate it."

At the same time, she said, "there is a big difference in the status of our government's relations" with South Africa and the PLO.

"The PLO is not a government, and we do not have diplomatic relations with them. We do have diplomatic relations with the government of South Africa, and we regularly have contact with them," she said.

According to Kirkpatrick, the meeting and her lack of curiosity about the South African visitors about the South African visitors are extensions of her own personal policy of "being open to people and being willing to listen to almost any point of view."

Her meeting with them, she said, "was hardly a clandestine affair." In the late afternoon of March 13, she said, she went to the American Security Council Office in Washington.

"There were probably, I don't know, a dozen, 14 people present," she said. "And I listened to them, and that's when I found out that there was a general. I still didn't know he was a member of the military intelligence. At that stage I thought he was a general in the South African Army.

"I would like to say that one of the things I resent very much -- I feel put upon by the fact that nobody told me these guys were in the country under false colors. That's the one thing that I would have done differently if I had known about this."

When the news that the South Africans were in the country broke, the State Department said that they had failed to identify themselves when applying for visas in Pretoria.

She did not know who Van der Westhuizen was, Kirkpatrick said, until she "read it in the papers" three days later.

"Maybe somebody set me up," she said, in an effort to force the administration's hand on "what our policy was. But I don't know who." In any case, the fact that she had met with Van der Westhuizen was not officially acknowledged until it appeared in the press last week. The earlier blanket denial by State Department spokesman William Dyess that Van der Westhuizen had met with high level administration officials was simply wrong, Kirkpatrick said. "Nobody asked me about the South Africans and the question is why did Dyess say that without checking?"

Even after she knew who the general was, and has heard the denial, she said, she made no effort to inform the State Department. "The State Department frequently doesn't know what I am doing," she said.

Had she been aware of his identity, Kirkpatrick said, "I don't think I would regard it as appropriate probably to meet with the head of South African military intelligence. That's a very special kind of an official. I would think it was imprudent and I wouldn't do it in fact. Prudence is for me the highest virtue. It's my favorite virture."

It was her prudence, she said, and her memories of Young, with knowledge of her "strong predilection to talk to almost anybody and listen to almost anybody and listen to almost anybody," that led her to ask the State Department, once she was appointed U.N. ambassador, "what our policy precisely was vis-a-vis the PLO."

She was told "that I am allowed to shake hands at a diplomatic reception and say how do you do. But i am no allowed to engage in social conversation."

Asked if she would have to run the other way if approached by a prohibited diplomat, Kirkpatrick laughed. "Well, sort of. Yes. Something like that. Which I would find very embarrassing, let me say."

Kirkpatrick said she has spent so much time learning about the United Nations and talking to Africans that she has had little opportunity to keep up with events in Central America, the region on which her writing and speaking focused immediately before the unauguration. It was her lack of sympathy with the Carter administration's human rights policy, and her belief that the United States should be closer to conservative authoritarian governments than to leftist ones, that first brought her to Ronald Reagan's attention.

Human rights are also at issue in southern Africa, however, and Kirkpatrick said that the African diplomats she has met with have expressed "again and again great anxieties about this administration's policies" toward southern Africa. "And I have tried to, in fact, communicate to the representatives of the black African countries that I think they have less to fear from the administration than they think they do."