Peter J. Duignan, an Africanist at the Hoover Institution who has written that the United States should pursue "detente" with South Africa, said yesterday that the Reagan administration has asked him to become the next director of the National Archives.
Duignan, interviewed by telephone from the Hoover tower at Stanford University in California, said his name had not yet been sent to the Senate because he is undergoing a routine security check. "I have to wait for all these hurdles," he said. "I certainly would like to take the job, yes."
The White House had no comment.
Duignan's nomination would likely cause controversy in the Senate, particularly because of his view that the United States "should extend rather than diminish academic, cultural, athletic, diplomatic and economic contacts with South Africa."
Senate sources said a potentially bruising nomination fight could be seen as a debate of the Reagan administration's entire southern African policy, which has increasingly come under attack from civil rights groups and even from conservatives in Congress who are openly discussing economic sanctions against Pretoria.
Duignan's nomination would be handled by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), who has sponsored a bill to deny South Africa new U.S. loans, ban flights to this country by South African Airways, and reduce the number of South African consulates in this country.
That committee is also holding up the nomination of another outspoken Reagan nominee, Donald J. Devine, who has been nominated for a second term as head of the Office of Personnel Management. Republicans hold a slim 7-to-6 majority on the committee, and member Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md) sometimes breaks with his party.
Senate sources said Duignan is likely to undergo particularly close scrutiny because senators were embarrassed recently by another controversial White House nomination. Marianne Mele Hall was confirmed as chairman of the Copyright Royalty Tribunal after a cursory investigation, even though she listed herself on a questionnaire as "coauthor" of a 1983 book considered insulting to blacks.
"There's no question," said one source close to the committee, "if his name is sent up here, everything he's ever said, done or written will be thoroughly reviewed."
Duignan has written widely on South Africa, recommending that the United States work with local realities there and comparing South Africa favorably to black-ruled African states. On one occasion, Duignan referred to the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoliy Dobrynin, as "a swine."
Duignan said yesterday that he is aware his views on South Africa have been controversial. But he said, "I don't see how it's relevant to my job as an archivist, dealing with government documents."
Duignan coauthored a 1978 book "Why South Africa Will Survive." In it, Duignan concludes that South Africa's whites are destined to dominate the country for years, and that the West should "endeavor to promote a policy of reform by supporting the verligtes reformist wing within the minority white National Party" because "the National Party wields effective power in South Africa."
He says in the book that he recognizes "change will be slow," and says South Africa should eventually end "all racially discriminatory legislation and practices." But he adds: "We cannot . . . see any objections on moral grounds. As we stated before, South Africa is not the world's most oppressive country."
More recently, in a 1984 article, Duignan wrote, "President Reagan has indicated that his administration regards apartheid as repugnant to basic American values, but as long as South Africa appears to be attempting to move away from its racist system of government, the United States should be helpful and encouraging."