Americans are speaking out with rising force against South Africa's practice of racial separation and the Reagan administration's policy of ``constructive engagement'' toward Pretoria. This opposition is dramatized in the arrests Tuesday of at least 140 students at the University of California at Berkeley. They were among more than 200 demonstrators protesting the university system's $1.7 billion in investments in companies doing business in South Africa.
Opposition also is seen in the faces of Columbia University students here in New York, who are protesting their school's investments in companies doing business in South Africa.
And it is felt at a conference on divestiture options for institutional investors from around the country.
It is even found in a Greenwich Village boutique that markets T-shirts that read ``Free South Africa.''
But more important, it's heard in the halls of Congress. The House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa begins debate today on various anti-apartheid measures.
Increased violence in South Africa, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, the recent changes in voting laws that allow Indians and coloreds (those of mixed race) some representation but deny black South Africans any voice, labor strikes, and student boycotts -- all have heightened public awareness in the United States of the effects of apartheid.
More than 100 blacks have been killed by South African police in demonstrations since the beginning of the year. Thousands have been arrested.
``Public pressure [in the US] is growing,'' says Stephanie Urdang, research director of the American Committee for Africa. ``It is a very important time.''
Rep. Howard E. Wolpe (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Africa subcommittee, says he is heartened by this public pressure.
He and others note that the issue has been rumbling around for more than four years, but recent actions in South Africa have helped bring the issue into public focus.
Mr. Wolpe will lead the House hearings on anti-apartheid measures today and tomorrow, and expects a bill to be on the floor in May.
``What we are trying to do is to begin to redirect American policy,'' says Wolpe, who has specialized in Africa and lived in Nigeria for two years. He says the administration's policy of constructive engagement, dealing with the South African government and encouraging changes, instead has ``destructive consequences for American interests.''
``In the last four years there has been a dramatic increase in repression,'' Wolpe said in New York City, where he was addressing a conference on divestiture.
The most-talked-about legislation being considered is a proposal by Rep. William H. Gray (D) of Pennsylvania.
It would ban bank loans to the South African government, make it illegal to import Krugerrands to the US, prohibit new investment to establish or finance US companies in South Africa, and stop the sale of computers to the government -- a key technology that allows the government to enforce its policy of pass laws.
International economic leverage against South Africa, where there is an estimated $14 billion in US investments, could force the government there to come face to face with its black population, says Bob Brauer, an aide to Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D) of Calif., who has proposed even stricter legislation.
This is the point many activists have sought to highlight in the past several months. Demonstrations outside the South African Embassy in Washington have brought visibility with the arrests of such people as singer Stevie Wonder and President Carter's daughter, Amy. Students at Columbia University hope their sit-in will help make apartheid a national concern. And in Berkeley, where police began arresting students at dawn yesterday, supporter Greg Towns says the students think their arrest will ``have a big impact.''
The recent increase in activism has been noted in South Africa, says Ms. Urdang. And Chiedu Osakwe, speaking on behalf of Ambassador Joseph Jarba of Nigeria, head of the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, agrees.
Although the UN body will not comment on the public policies of the Reagan administration, Mr. Osakwe says that ``anywhere a ground swell . . . directed against the evil of apartheid occurs, we support, encourage, and endorse it.''
The issue of divestiture is gaining more support, say observers. Urdang points out that 27 states are currently debating divestiture. Massachusetts, Michigan, Connecticut, Maryland, and Nebraska have already passed divestiture laws. Many cities and universities have also adopted such policies. In New York yesterday, the city announced the hiring of an investment adviser to help implement its divestiture resolutions.
Peter Edelman, chairman of the New World Foundation, which has recently decided to divest, told institutional investors this week that ``our view is that every act of trade [with South Africa] is an act of international approval of apartheid. [Our] divestment is a symbol perhaps, but so, too, is each act of business.''
His foundation formerly invested in companies that subscribed to the Sullivan Principles, under which US businesses in South Africa promise to work for better and more education, training, and promotions of black workers. But many now point out that the principles do not address the issue of political rights in South Africa. And only 1 percent of black South Africans are employed by American companies.