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Any assessment of the West's strategic stake in South Africa must start with this country's mineral wealth. That wealth is so staggering that terms such as "the Persian Gulf of minerals" are hardly overblown.

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Some key statistics:

* In 1979, South Africa produced more than $7 billion worth of gold. Its mines employed tens of thousands of people from seven countries, pumping millions of dollars into the economies of neighboring nations.

* South Africa accounts for one-fifth of the Western world's total uranium exports. Uranium is, of course, essential for nuclear power production.

* Some estimates say that during the 1980s, South Africa will become the world's largest exporter of coal, an increasingly important energy mineral.

All of these riches come from a country that occupies less than 0.8 percent of the earth's land area.

Impressive as these statistics are, critics point to another side of them. The US and other Western countries are no longer on the gold standard and have resisted efforts to remonetize the precious metal. Uranium demand across much of the industrialized world is falling, as nations ponder the safety of nuclear power and seek alternative energy sources. And the US has substantial reserves of coal -- by some estimates, one-third of the world total.

But South Africa has something neither the US nor its allies possess -- an abundance of so-called strategic minerals. These include:

* Chromium. A key element in stainless steel, chromium is essential for production of a wide variety of implements -- from hospital equipment to gun barrels to jet engines. There is no known substitute for chromium and little likelihood of finding one.

The US imports some 90 percent of its chromium needs, and about half of that total comes from South Africa. According to various estimates, South Africa alone has between 68 and 81 percent of world chromite ore reserves.If the higher estimate (that of the South African government) is accepted, that amounts to a 934-year supply at current production levels.

Dr. Earl Parker of the University of California at Berkeley says. "The US is strategically more vulnerable to a long-term chromium embargo than to an embargo of any other natural resources, including petroleum."

* Manganese. Manganese is vital in the production of many steel alloys, and South Africa claims to have some 78 percent of the world's reserves. (US sources place the figure somewhat lower, at about 53 percent. Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement that the South African reserves are substantial.)

South Africa's manganese production, currently pegged at 55 percent of the Western world's total, provides the Us with about one-third of its imports of that metal.

As with chromium, the US is heavily dependent on imports of manganese; about 98 percent of its supply comes from other countries. And that worries some analysts, since without manganese the US steel industry -- and US weapons producers -- might face serious problems.

E.F. Andrews, vice-president of Allegheny-Ludlum Industries, says simply, "If you can't get manganese, you can't make steel."

* Platinum. Vital as a catalyst in the oil refining process, platinum is also a key element in the catalytic converters that limit emission of pollutants in exhaust gases from American cars.

The US imports about 91 percent of its platinum needs, and currently about 55 percent of US imports come from South Africa. South Africa has between 54 and 75 percent of world reserves.

South Africa also provides about three-quarters of American vanadium imports and plays a role in supplying another extremely important mineral, cobalt, to the US.

At present, the US is dependent on Zaire -- a central African country perpetually on the brink of bankdruptcy -- for over 40 percent of its cobalt. And virtually all of Zaire's cobalt exports are shipped over South African rail routes and through South African ports.

In some cases, US allies are just as dependent on South Africa for strategic minerals. West Germany, for example, gets over 50 percent of its manganese imports from South Africa. Britain is dependent on South Africa for some 75 percent of its chromium imports.