Johannesburg — Of all the boycotts against South Africa, those in the field of sport have been the most visibly grating on the people who live here.
You could almost hear a national sigh of disappointment when it was learned that the recent World Cup Soccer final would not be televised live, or probably ever. South Africa was denied television coverage for political reasons.
Now there is a dramatic mood swing in the opposite direction as South Africans queue up excitedly for a taste of the soccer they missed. A six-match soccer tour is scheduled to begin this week with an international team that includes three stars from the World Cup competition - Two Argentines and a Brazilian.
Breaking the international soccer boycott against South Africa, these rebel players have sparked anew the debate here over how far the republic has come in ''deracializing'' sport. Or indeed, whether that is really the crux issue behind boycotts.
''South Africa has made changes in sport, but the argument (in favor of boycotts) is that the whole sport issue ties up with very much more than what happens on the field,'' says Ina Perlman of the South African Institute of Race Relations.
The real question, she says, is whether sport integration and equal opportunity are ever truly possible in a strictly segregated society. Black children have inferior sports training and facilities because of less government spending per person on black education.
Even if separation and inequality in sport were ended, the broader justification for boycotts would remain, say critics of South African race policy. Boycotts, they insist, are a legitimate tool for pressuring South Africa to change its whole apartheid (forced racial segregation) system.
The soccer tour is not considered a signal that the world is tiring of boycotting South Africa.
''All it indicates is that if you have enough cash you can buy anyone,'' Perlman says. Because South Africans are such keen sports enthusiasts, she feels boycotts are more effective in sport than in any other sphere.
South African Breweries is underwriting the tour of probably 18 players from England, Belgium, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Argentina, and to the tune of $1.6 million. Players are reportedly being paid tens of thousands of dollars each. A similar rebel tour of cricketers earlier this year also succeeded because of large sums of money paid to the players.
The huge sums being offered does indicate ''a very aggressive attempt to break the boycott,'' says Aggrey Klaaste of the black newspaper the Sowetan, which has condemned the tour.
''South Africa should be isolated,'' Klaaste says. ''When stars like these come here, it gives the impression overseas that things are going well here, when they are not.''
Overall black reaction is probably more ambivalent. Klaaste says a snap poll conducted by the paper found 70 percent of those questioned backing the tour. ''It puts black people in a difficult position,'' he says. While politically they are in favor of boycotts, ''they just love soccer.'' he says.
The first canceling of a sports tour of South Africa to protest racial policies came in 1959. And in 1961 South Africa was excluded from the Commonwealth Games in Australia. In 1964 the country was banned from the Olympic Games.
Today, South Africa is suspended from international competition in almost all sports that are popular here. Tennis, rugby, and professional boxing stand out as the exceptions.
Soccer is considered the most integrated of major South African sports, and the most popular among blacks. The liberal Rand Daily Mail supported the tour for this reason, and also since ''. . .it is black players - and spectators - who stand to gain most from the proposed tour.''
The new Ellis Park sports stadium just opened in Johannesburg is racially ''open'' and will provide black soccer players with the kind of first-rate facilities they have lacked. Two of the soccer matches are to be played there.
Government government policy calls for sports to be ''normalized.'' Some important laws - for example, the Liquor Act that prohibited sports clubs from allowing racial mixing - have been amended by Parliament to allow mixing in sport. Another recent change exempts athletes and sporting events from the restrictions of the Group Areas Act, which limits certain race groups to certain geographical areas.
David Dalling, spokesman on sport for the opposition Progressive Federal Party, says the government has made legitimate legislative reforms in the field of sport. Acknowledging that boycotts have played a role in prodding that reform , he nonetheless supports the soccer tour because ''soccer is nonracial and controlled by blacks.''
Dalling feels blanket boycotts against South Africa are beginning to be counterproductive. When there are reforms, as in sports, he feels boycotts should be loosened to show that reforms are rewarded.