The African tribal chief, the civil rights leader and the black Republican conservative are separated by distance, political philosophy, culture and attitude.

But on one aspect of the South African question, they come close to saying the same thing: hurting white people is not necessarily the same as helping black people.

Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, who has been criticized by activists in this country for playing it too cozy with the South African government, says it with a trace of royal condescension. Americans who support disinvestment as a way of forcing a racial accommodation in his land either don't understand or don't care that disinvestment would hurt blacks more -- and more immediately, he says.

But during a recent luncheon at The Washington Post, he also criticized the oficial U.S. path of "constructive engagement" as "only half a policy." "Constructive engagement," he said, speaks to the South African government, and that could be helpful, but only "if your government also did something to help the black people of South Africa." He said he had in mind such things as food aid, education aid, business- development aid.

Jesse Jackson, who has participated in the Free South Africa demonstrations at the embassy here, turns it into a mini-sermon. "It's good to dramatize the resistance," he told me, "but black South Africans need resources.

"Suppose apartheid had ended last night and Nelson Mandela and the others had come to power. Would the people who championed Mandela yesterday still be standing with him today? Would the newly enfranchised blacks have the economic base and the economic experience to exercise economic power? Black South Africans need not just our protest but also our support."

Carlos Campbell, an assistant secretary of commerce during thefirst Reagan term, clothes the idea with the specifics so dear to the heart of a government official. During a recent meeting with Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state and author of "constructive engagement," Campbell called for a broad- based commission (his proposed names included Richard Nixon, Robert McNamara, Andrew Young and Randall Robinson) to reexamine U.S. policy toward South Africa, a summit conference to "negotiate an end to petty apartheid" and a time frame for power-sharing.

But he also proposed specific ways in which this country could help black South Africans, including leveraged buy-outs so that they could acquire equity in multinational firms doing business there; joint ventures and subcontracts to promote business opportunities for blacks, and the establishment of a South African Development Bank, chartered in South Africa and controlled by blacks.

"While I in no way seek to diminish the need for substantive and immediate social reforms," he told Crocker in a letter following their meeting, "there is also a need to build a significant black economic infrastructure within South Africa."

I don't know what these three men might say to each other with regard to the street demonstrations or the sanctions now being drafted in the U.S. Congress or the prospects of armed revolution led by the African National Congress.

What fascinates me is that the three, from their radically different vantage points, see something that seldom gets talked about: that no matter what happens to the white power structure of South Africa, that country's blacks will not really be free until they are able to control their economic destiny; that economic development might even accelerate their political enfranchisement; and that hurting the master doesn't necessarily help the slave.