London — For Britain, black Africa, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, and New Zealand, the latest effort by South Africa to gain international prestige raises a basic moral issue:
Does a decision to play international sport with or in the land of apartheid help weaken that racial system -- or does it serve to condone it and lend it an aura of respectability?
Britain is divided over the latest episode -- South African success in persuading some of Britain's best-known cricket players to tour South African cities and play international matches against local players.
For the first time, a group of sizable British sportsmen have defied the rules of their sporting bodies, and risked being expelled from British teams to play other countries in the future.
The individual dilemma for each of the players now in South Africa is whether they are really ''just playing cricket,'' as they insist, or whether they have accepted large sums of money (said to be up to (STR)40,000 or $72,400 each) from a society desperate to break out of world isolation without changing the racial policies that led to that isolation in the first place.
It is a dilemma faced by New Zealand and Welsh rugby players in the past, and one which is periodically aired in the United Nations General Assembly where antiapartheid nations are in the overwhelming majority.
For Britain, there is a national dilemma: a free society cannot prevent its people travelling abroad - but there is new anger and threat of retaliation from the British Commonwealth of Nations (45 countries comprising more than one billion people, whose titular leader is the Queen).
India and Pakistan are due to send cricket teams here in the summer. Normally , such contests arouse fervent interest in the Commonwealth (even if they remain remote and impenetrable to Americans). But now subcontinent officials say the tour will be cancelled unless Britain bans all players now in South Africa from playing for Britain's national team.
The Commonwealth games, set for Brisbane, Australia, in September, is already deep in controversy. Foreign ministers of the Organization of African States (OAS) in Addis Ababa have indicated a black African boycott if New Zealand competes, because New Zealand allowed a tour by South African rugby players last year.
The current controversy will deepen black anger. It coincides with a new United Nations black-list issued by the UN Center for Apartheid, showing that Britain and the US have the most sporting links with South Africa.
The list says that in the nine months to Dec. 31 last year, 115 individuals and two teams from Britain took part in sporting events with South Africa.
South Africa was using tennis, golf, cricket, and rugby as a ''very large battering ram to break out of isolation,'' commented the chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC), Sam Ramsamy.
The British government moved quickly to condemn the cricketers' tour (led by such well-known players as Geoffrey Boycott and Graham Gooch). Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Sports Minister Neil MacFarlane denounced the secrecy in which the tour had been arranged.
They made it clear the government would have done all it could to try and stop the tour taking place. In their view it is a clear breach of an agreement in which Commonwealth countries agreed to discourage sports teams playing in or against South Africa.
Several cricket writers here argue that the players were only doing on their own what a report by the International Cricket Conference (ICC) proposed in 1979 . The ICC reported that South Africa had done enough to make its cricket multi-racial to warrant an international team being sent.