THE Gillette Company, best known for its razor blades, is at the cutting edge of new efforts by US companies to help blacks in South Africa. Gillette's South African subsidiary has just opened a legal-aid clinic serving mainly blacks, the first such service started by a business in this country. Gillette, like other American companies operating in South Africa, is under intense political pressure both here, from blacks, and in the United States to do more to oppose South Africa's system of racial segregation, known as apartheid.
``This is a real way to have a go at stuff like influx control,'' says James Clarke, managing director of Gillette South Africa Ltd.
Influx control, which restricts blacks in their travel and access to jobs, is one of those discriminatory features of South Africa that leave US firms wide open to the charge that they are exploiting black labor in South Africa. Mr. Clarke hopes the legal clinic can help blacks better understand their rights within the influx-control system and even drum up cases that might help establish new legal precedents in the area of black rights.
``We wouldn't finance urban guerrillas,'' says a Gillette corporate officer who recently paid his first visit to South Africa. ``But we can probe the edges of the law.''
Probing the edges of the law in a host country may sound like a dubious activity for a multinational corporation. But many US firms in South Africa recognize the uniqueness of this country's segregationist laws and the strong feelings they inspire back in America. These companies seem to accept that their role here must be different than in other countries.
The Rev. Leon Sullivan, who in l977 established a set of principles by which he felt US firms in South Africa should abide, urged companies to go further last November when anti-South Africa demonstrations spread across the US. ``Support the recension of all apartheid laws,'' he told the US companies that subscribe to the so-called Sullivan Principles.
American firms ``recognize that business has a unique responsibility'' in South Africa that goes beyond their involvement in social programs in other countries, says Stephen Bisenius, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa.
Gillette, for instance, spends six to seven times more on affirmative action and social programs in South Africa than its general corporate guidelines call for.
Mr. Bisenius says US companies as a group spend proportionately more on social responsibility programs in South Africa than they do anywhere else in the world.
Mr. Sullivan said the l984 evaluation of US companies operating in South Africa that are signatories to the Sullivan Principles was ``the most encouraging'' in the program's history. The principles call for nonsegregation in the workplace; equal employment practices; equal pay for comparable work; training programs aimed at blacks, Coloreds (persons of mixed race), and Indians; the promotion of nonwhites into supervisory jobs; and improving the quality of life outside the workplace.
About 300 US firms do business in South Africa. They have a combined direct investment of between $2.5 and $3 billion and employ some 80,000 blacks. While only 128 US companies participate in the Sullivan program, they represent most of the largest firms operating here.
Still, the political pressure on US companies operating here has never been greater. Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu has said that unless certain aspects of South Africa's system of apartheid are rescinded within two years, he will call for foreign companies to withdraw their investments.
The US Congress appears more inclined to pass some punitive economic legislation against South Africa this year than at any time in the recent past.
The pressure is keenly felt by businessmen here. ``You're going to have more companies scratching their heads wondering what to do for an encore,'' says Arthur Tregenza, a spokesman for General Motors. He says US companies are doing social good in South Africa, but ``the message hasn't crossed the ocean.''
The South African government and the South African business community are clearly concerned about the US disinvestment drive. One prevalent worry is that the political pressure against doing business here will be indirectly abetted by this country's severe recession.
``We're worried the bottom line won't offset the hassle factor'' and US firms will quietly stop investing in South Africa, said an official at a local chamber of commerce.
Gillette's legal clinic is located in Springs, the industrial suburb east of Johannesburg where the company is located. The clinic is free to those who cannot afford to pay for its services, which means its clientele will be predominantly black. Clarke says the clinic will cost Gillette about $35,000 this year.
The University of South Africa will supply law students to work at the clinic under the supervision of one full-time attorney.
One difficulty facing US businesses is how to respond to the unmistakable trend in black politics to reject anything that is seen to be ``part of the system.'' For instance, US companies have spent large sums of money on improving black education. But the schools are run by the government and they are often the first buildings to be attacked during black unrest.
Gillette's other programs for blacks include classes for local businessmen, a secretarial training unit at the local technical school, sporting facilities, housing loans and guaranteed mortgages. Gillette is planning to provide qualified blacks with loans that will cover the complete cost of a college education.