US firms asked to accept strengthened code for doing business in South Africa.

Pressure is mounting for American companies in South Africa to take a more activist stance against apartheid. On one front, the Sullivan principles - the voluntary code of conduct for American companies doing business in South Africa - are getting stiffer.

Companies adhering to the code met in a closed-door session in New York on Wednesday to discuss more stringent provisions that would move the anti-apartheid influence of US corporations beyond the workplace into the realm of social policy.

The Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, the code's author, met with signators to discuss how to implement new anti-apartheid requirements that include supporting black businesses in urban settings, influencing other companies to adhere to Sullivan principles, supporting the right of black workers to move about and work where they may choose, and, significantly, ''to support the recension of all apartheid laws.''

Impelling the tightening of requirements are signs of deteriorating conditions in South Africa: massive black labor walkouts, rioting, and increasing use of the military to quell unrest.

''We are developing a process to remove these (apartheid) customs and laws,'' Mr. Sullivan, pastor of the Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, said in a telephone interview with the Monitor. ''The center of everything I've done is the empowerment of black workers. If youufnu,15pAPARTHEID28APARTHEID1ufmrk,114 lcan get workers to speak out for themselves in the plant, then they will speak out in society.''

Tougher Sullivan principles are just one response to the situation in South Africa. Public criticism of US policies is coming from sources such as the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and anti-apartheid demonstrators who have been picketing in various US cities.

''You will definitely see more demonstrations at corporate headquarters,'' says Richard Knight of the American Committee on South Africa, a New York-based anti-apartheid group.

This heat on the home front, combined with a two-year-old recession in South Africa, may well make US company officials wonder if those overseas investments are worth the trouble.

US bank loans to South African banks are up since 1981. Direct US investments , however, dropped 13 percent, to $2.3 billion, from 1981 to '83. But the falloff may be more the result of a weak economy than bowing to public opinion. In the past year, the Chrysler Corporation and Hyster Inc., a forklift manufacturer, closed or sold all plants in South Africa because they had become unprofitable.

Several Ford plants have shut down this year. ''There are rumors that Ford and General Motors are pulling out,'' says David Hauck, an expert on South Africa at the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington. ''If they did, though, I wouldn't count it as a victory for anti-apartheid forces.''

''If Ford executives are sitting around in Dearborn discussing a marginal plant, they may ask themselves, 'Do we have to take the negative publicity for something that's marginal?' '' Mr. Hauck says.

Nevertheless, several firms still in South Africa say they have a moral as well as a profit motive for staying.

''We deplore apartheid and make no secret about it, but we know we can't quit or pull out,'' said Norton Company vice-president Tom Hourihan in a prepared statement. (The issue is so sensitive that many US firms choose their words carefully.) ''We've been a force for good in our own way in South Africa. We feel strongly about this. On a moral basis we feel very comfortable about what we've done and what we're doing.''

Norton, in Worcester, Mass., is one of 128 companies that have agreed to adhere to the voluntary standards established in 1977 for doing business in South Africa. Signators annually provide information on how they conduct business in South Africa and are rated on their performance. To get a ''passing'' grade, companies must do a substantial number of the following: desegregate all facilities, meet agreed-upon minimum wage standards, recognize black unions, pay equal wages for comparable work, give equal benefits to white and nonwhite employees, provide training for and promote nonwhite workers, and support community development and education. Norton was one of 90 top-ranked companies, according to the annual performance review released in October by Arthur D. Little Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Apartheid critics say the Sullivan principles are too narrow, attacking effects (working conditions) instead of causes (government policies). Besides, they say, companies pay taxes as well as provide goods and services that support the government. And in this country, US companies lobby against sanctions that might speed change in South Africa.

''The Sullivan principles are used by the corporations as a way of fending off divestment and other harder choices,'' says Mr. Knight of the American Committee on South Africa. He adds, ''The Arthur D. Little report is a joke. It has very little company-specific information.''

The Rev. Mr. Sullivan says he expects US businesses to speak out and lobby against apartheid: ''When I started, they said desegregation within the company was unrealistic. They said it wouldn't happen because it hadn't happened. Well, it did happen. When I talked about blacks supervising whites, they said it wouldn't happen. Well, it did happen.''

How effective can such efforts be? US companies employ about 1 percent of the total black work force, and only about 90 out of 350 firms in South Africa are rated as living up to the Sullivan principles.

''Some companies do in fact contribute to change in South Africa,'' Hauck says. ''Other companies just go along with the status quo. They're down there to do business.''

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