Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, armed with a new ordinance that prohibits the city from investing public funds in any institution that does business in South Africa, is urging 100 mayors across the United States to enact similar legislation.
Although New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and a number of smaller cities earlier passed divestment legislation, experts say Boston's ordinance is the most far-reaching.
''It's important that Boston - as the cradle of liberty - send a message that it objects to human rights violations,'' Mayor Flynn says. The statement is directed at South Africa, where the white-dominated government enforces apartheid, a policy of strict racial segregation and discrimination against blacks and other ethnic groups.
Flynn recently took his appeal to the executive committee of the US Conference of Mayors, which agreed to have its staff study ways that cities could implement similar policies. The Boston mayor pledges to follow up on the issue when the full membership of the Conference of Mayors convenes in January.
Drafted and introduced by City Councilor Charles C. Yancey, the Boston ordinance:
* Prohibits retirement funds of city workers from being invested or deposited in US banks that lend money to the government of South Africa or to South African corporations and prohibits these pension funds from being invested in stocks and bonds of companies that do business in South Africa.
* Prohibits all other public funds from being deposited with banks that make loans to South Africa or to companies doing business there.
* Requires banks to sign affidavits certifying that they have no loans and offer no credit to South Africa.
* Extends the boycott to Namibia, a territory in Southwest Africa that the United Nations says is illegally occupied and administered by South Africa.
Councilor Yancey supports Flynn's campaign to help spread divestment legislation in cities across the United States and hopes the idea will take hold. ''I'm glad to see he's taking the ball and running with it. ... The atrocious situation in South Africa can no longer be ignored by the international community,'' Yancey says.
A Flynn administration spokesman says 100 letters were mailed to US mayors at the end of July, and positive responses have been received from Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Detroit, San Antonio, Honolulu, Oakland, Calif., and Gary, Ind.
For some years there has been a concerted effort in the US to discourage investments in the South African economy. Student-faculty groups have lobbied heavily, and in some cases successfully, to force private colleges and universities to divest themselves of stock in companies operating in or doing business with South Africa.
Jennifer Davis of the American Committee on Africa says the 350 US companies with branches or subsidaries in South Africa prolong the survival of the white system by strengthening the economy that serves it.
But many of the multinationals say they are a force for constructive change in South Africa. Indeed, about 125 of them voluntarily comply with the Sullivan Principles, a code of employment practices named after the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a board member of General Motors Corporation. These companies say they've desegregated the workplace, provided blacks with equal pay and equal opportunity for promotion, and spent millions of dollars in black communities to improve schools and other facilities.
The Reagan administration, too, advocates a policy of ''constructive engagement'' in South Africa. The US has said South Africa's political system is morally wrong, but maintains it's easier to promote reform through private coaxing than through public criticism.
But Ms. Davis says, ''South Africa only responds to tough pressure. ... If there's no criticism, they (government officials) do what they want.'' Indeed, Reagan's policies may actually have fueled the divestment issue, says the South African expatriate. ''In some sense, it's an attempt by many people at the local level to say constructive engagement isn't working.''
The irony is that Boston has had its own share of racial problems. During the mid-1970s,the city developed a reputation for racial prejudice when whites led demonstrations to stop busing designed to achieve racial integration in city schools.
While the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People supports Flynn's campaign to promote the new ordinance, says chapter president Henry F. Owens III, ''we're going to make sure other areas (of civil rights protection) in Boston are not neglected.''
The ordinance, expected to be approved by the state legislature in early October, would go into effect immediately. The city would have up to three years to fully implement the law. The Boston divestment will affect at least $10.3 million in retirement funds, city officials say.
One chart. Source: American Committee on Africa
Cities and states that have passed divestment legislation
Cities: Cotati, Calif.
Cuyahoga County (Cleveland)
Santa Cruz, Calif.
Cities and states that have passed nonbinding legislation
East Lansing, Mich.
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Multnomah County, Mich.
States where legislation is pending: