AMERICAN public opinion favors some form of national pressure on the white Republic of South Africa to induce that country to modify its attitude toward the black people who live inside its military frontiers. The desire to ``do something'' is seen in recent street demonstrations outside South African diplomatic missions and in votes in the United States Congress. The Senate voted 88 to 12 on July 11 in favor of a program of mild economic sanctions. The House voted 295 to 127 in favor of a stronger program of sanctions.
The White House is unhappy about sanctions and would prefer continued ``constructive engagement.'' But latest reports indicate that President Reagan now recognizes a domestic political necessity to do something.
One interesting feature of all this is that few if any outsiders are proposing, or favoring, the one course of action that could conceivably point toward an ultimate peaceful solution of race relations in South Africa.
The theory behind much public agitation and behind the measures proposed in the Congress and at the United Nations in New York is that with sufficient pressure from the outside, South Africa might grant votes and civil rights to its black majority and then all would be well.
Nothing could be sillier.
There are 5 million whites in South Africa, who own virtually everything and enjoy a standard of living comparable to that which is enjoyed in Western Europe and North America.
Outside pressure in the form of sanctions and boycotts is useless against this condition. South Africa is virtually self-sufficient. It can feed itself easily and is sufficient in energy. A ban on United States investments in South Africa, including withdrawal of US companies, would have an irritating but negligible effect.
There are more than 20 million blacks, who own virtually nothing, live on a standard well below that of the whites, and enjoy no civil or legal rights. They are not citizens. They are merely outsiders allowed to work in the country on terms and at wages fixed by the whites.
The basic fact about South Africa is that the whites are going to own it and run it for their own benefit so long as they have the police power to control the interior and the military power to resist outside intrusion. Boycotts and UN resolutions will have no serious effect unless and until the blacks obtain equal or superior military power, and that can be a long way off, if ever.
But does that have to mean nothing but violence and rising bloodshed ahead?
The blacks are dissatisfied and miserable because they are neither citizens in South Africa nor entitled to citizenship in a place where they could build a sound and satisfying life of their own. There is a partition of the lands of South Africa now, in an embryonic form. Many blacks have been pushed into tribal areas.
Partition could work, if the whites would give the blacks enough land and enough of the natural resources of the area to make life economically viable.
What the whites want above all is to govern their own lives. They will never voluntarily agree to commit themselves and their fortunes to life in a country run by blacks. There are too many whites, and they have been in South Africa too long. Their homeland is there. They have no other.
But their homeland does not have to be as big as it is now. A white area could be carved out extending from Cape Town to Johannesburg which could contain most of the whites along with ample farmland and raw materials and industries to give them a continuing good life.
If the blacks they allowed to remain inside the white ``tribal area'' were a minority, the whites would not have the same reason to deny civil and human rights to that minority. The map could be redrawn to provide a majority white country, with majority black countries as neighbors.
Unless thinking starts moving in that direction, the prospect is for rising violence, until someday the black majority overwhelms Africa's only ``white tribe.''