Johannesburg — Officials of American-owned corporations here are braced for increased criticism -- and political pressure -- over their operations in this white-ruled country. TSome are expecting a strong backlask against United States investment in South Africa after the visit of the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a black American who is a director of the General Motors Corporation.
Mr. Sullivan is author of an employment practices code, dubbed "the Sullivan principles," aimed at improving the lot of black workers here.
But, in emotion-packed speeches here, Mr. Sullivan conceded that much more needs to be done to remove racial inequality in South Africa. And, he said, American companies were "moving at the pace of a possum" in implementing reforms , while other multinational companies had similarly unimpressive records.
"I will be returning to America," he vowed, "and will be returning the screws more and more."
Among the points made by the tall, deep-voiced BAptist preacher:
* US companies that have refused to sign the Sullivan principles should come under increased pressure at home. He raised the possibility of a campaign for "selective divestments" against those companies that either refused to sign the principles or refused to have their compliance with the principles monitored.
Such companies might be penalized by "tax penalties" and some form of selective sanctions, he added.
* No US banks should give loans to the South African government or its agencies until apartheid -- this country's pervasive system of racial discrimination -- has been dismantled.
* US companies should plan no new investments in South Africa, except for necessary investment to remain competitive, until the government commits itself to such reforms as the holding of a national convention to find a new form of government.
He specifically suggested this convention should include black leaders such as Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned head of the banned African National Congress (ANCE).
The Rev. Mr. Sullivan's appearance was sponsored by the South African Institute of Race Relations. In a speech, Mr. Sullivan promised to meet with college presidents and officials of other institutions controlling "billions of dollars" in investments funds and question their investments in US companies that do not sign the Sullivan principles.
Signatories to the Sullivan principles are pledged to: integrate eating, work , and toilet facilities; observe equal and fair employment practices; provide equal pay for equal work; start training programs to prepare blacks for supervisory and administrative jobs; and improve employees' lives outside work by upgrading housing, transportation, education recreation, and health facilities.
Of the approximately 300 US firms operating here, 140 are signatories to the Sullivan principles.
One official of a US company's subsidiary here predicted Mr. Sullivan would "Show his teeth" once back in the US, pressing for tougher action against American corporations here that lagged on equal employment practices. And, he added, some directors of American corporations could use the prodding.
"It's so easy to sit in America, look at the bottom line, and forget everything else," he said.
But some black people here were far less sanguine about the import of Mr. Sullivan's visit, the Sullivan principles, or the possibility that American corporations could do much to bring about peaceful change in this racially troubled country.
Publicity, several leaders branded the Sullivan principles "practically meaningless" because they did little to alter the basic political structure here.
Privately they were even more negative. "We've gone round the bend as far as peaceful change is concerned," said one activist from Soweto. "Violent conflict has already begun," he added.
Another young black man had a flippant, yet grim summation of Mr. Sullivan's speech.
"He sounds good," the young man said, "but dynamite sounds better."
That may well sum up the view among many black activists here concerning fair employment codes. Many have doubts about the sincerity of efforts of American corporations here, which they see as exploiters of a cheap, controlled labor market.
Moreover, they doubt that even drastic improvements in working conditions at American-owned businesses would make much difference in South Africa. As Mr. Sullivan admitted, only about 1 percent of the total black work force here is in the employ of US-based corporations.
Others, however, argue that efforts by American businesses to improve the lot of black workers will have a "spinoff" effect. That is, such efforts may prompt other companies here to adopt more progressive attitudes.
The Rev. Mr. Sullivan, who heads Philadelphia's 5,000- member Zion Baptist Church, says the principles already have served as a "catalyst for change."
As of October 1979, he said, three-quarters of the signatory companies had completely removed discrimination in their work places. Other corporations had "adopted" nearby schools, and were providing funds to improve both the physical plant and the quality of instruction.
US businesses here are providing scholarships for some 655 black students, he said, and have set a goal of 5,000 such grants by 1984.