In an apparent response to recent U.S. protests against its policy, South Africa today recalled its ambassador-designate to the United States.

Although the ambassador-designate, Herbert Beukes, was recalled formally for "consultations" and is expected to brief his government on a forthcoming U.S. House-Senate conference committee meeting on economic sanctions against South Africa, his return was seen here as part of the growing strain between the two countries.

Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, leader of the opposition Progressive Federal Party, said tonight that Beukes's return, following the recall of U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Herman W. Nickel last month and French Ambassador Pierre Boyer on Sunday, meant South Africa's foreign relations were now "at the lowest point they have ever been."

Nickel was recalled for consultations in a protest gesture after South African commandos made attacks in Angola's northern province of Cabinda and on black fugitives living in Botswana's capital of Gaborone in mid-June.

Beukes, appointed to succeed ambassador Brand Fourie last month, has not yet had his credentials accepted in Washington. A State Department official said last week "circumstances have not been propitious" for allowing Beukes to be recognized right now.

This was a reference to U.S. disapproval of South Africa's declaration of a state of emergency June 21, and mass arrests that are being made in an attempt to quell racial unrest in which more than 500 blacks have been killed during the past 11 months. They are protesting the system of racial segregation called apartheid and the lack of political power for blacks who make up about 80 percent of the country's population.

As sporadic unrest continued in various parts of South Africa today and the number of arrests rose to 1,259, Minister of Law and Order Louis le Grange announced that the government would issue a proclamation limiting the number of people allowed to attend funerals in the country's segregated black townships.

With open-air political meetings prohibited, the black rebellion has found expression at the funerals of those killed in clashes with police, which have been turned into massive political rallies.

Crowds of up to 70,000 attend these funeral rallies, which are an emotion-charged blend of grief and excitement as young activists jog through the township streets carrying the coffins of their dead comrades on their shoulders, chanting slogans, singing freedom songs and waving their fists in the black power salute.

Banners of the underground African National Congress are unfurled and its heroes are praised in songs. Political leaders deliver the funeral orations.

Often there are violent clashes between armed police and sections of the worked-up crowd after these ceremonies, resulting in more deaths and then another funeral rally a few days later.

Le Grange announced his intention to restrict the size of the crowds after meeting the mayor of Port Elizabeth and community leaders in eastern Cape Province, where the most serious unrest has occurred. He said the proclamation would be issued "within the next few days."

His announcement prompted warnings from black leaders that the restriction might lead to even more serious clashes if security forces intervened to disperse large crowds which would likely gather in defiance of the proclamation.

With no sign yet of the unrest subsiding despite the large-scale arrests of activists, there was some criticism in South Africa today of President Pieter W. Botha's rebuff to Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu's request for a meeting to try to defuse the racial crisis.

The Citizen, a progovernment newspaper which has been critical of Tutu for what it calls his "emotional outbursts" against apartheid, said in an editorial that the Nobel laureate's approach should not have been brushed aside. Police headquarters in Pretoria announced the release of 13 persons detained under the emergency regulation, the first to be freed since the mass arrests began July 21.