The Reagan administration mildly criticized the South African government yesterday and praised Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu's call for an end to violence in black townships.

"Bishop Tutu expressed what we believe is the central need for South Africa, that black and white enter into a dialogue on the future of their country," said White House spokesman Larry Speakes.

"We applaud him for his call for an end to township violence. We again condemn violence to resolve South Africa's problems," Speakes added. "We again do not minimize the responsibility of the South African government to create a climate for talks that would result in a change away from apartheid."

Speakes read this statement in response to a question about White House reaction to comments of Tutu criticizing President Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement" in South Africa and calling upon Reagan to denounce apartheid. Speakes had no comment about these remarks.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz, in remarks before a foreign policy conference, called the turmoil in southern Africa "very painful" and one that "wrenches us so deeply."

But he said the United States will stick with its policy of constructive engagement because the alternative would be to walk away "and say 'a plague on both your houses.' "

A senior White House official said the administration was reviewing the situation in South Africa in light of the "serious and negative" developments there, including the state of emergency imposed by the government. But he said that the administration was not reassessing basic policy in South Africa or the region.

"It is very important for us to remain engaged in South Africa and in the diplomatic process there," the official said.

He said Reagan administration officials at "the highest level" of the State Department and National Security Council thought that the United States could have an influence within South Africa only by remaining "diplomatically engaged" and that this engagement was necessary in the region to obtain a settlement in Namibia and withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.

In his public statements, Reagan has sometimes criticized apartheid but has usually coupled any such comment with denunciations of violence against the government. At a March 21 news conference, after 17 blacks were shot to death by South African police, Reagan said the United States would not change its policy and partially blamed the action on "rioting that was going on in behalf" of the blacks who were killed.