Ben Vereen and Gladys Knight and the Pips recently bowed under pressure and canceled tours in ysouth Africa. The O'Jays, Millie Jackson and Ray Charles, who all visited here over the past year, found that along with the applause of their fans, they got a fair share of political static for performing in a country whose racial policies are internationally criticized.

American entertainers -- particularly blacks, who are by far the most popular overseas artists among this country's black majority -- are discovering that doing concerts in South Africa is attracting more political controversy than they probably would like. Often, however, they are not aware of the controversy until they arrive here.

The debate over whether American artists should come here is heating up. Entertainers are beginning to receive more frequent and more lucrative contract offers from the new white-financed, multiracial entertainment center at the resort complex of Sun City. Frank Sinatra opened there in late July. Peaches and Herb performed there about a month ago.

Sun City is located in Bophuthatswana, one of the "independent" black homelands set up under the South African government's apartheid policy. Many critics say that performing there gives tacit recognition to the homeland, whose "independence" is not recognized by any foreign government.

The most activist proponent of entertainment boycotts of South Africa is the militant, black-consciousness-oriented Azanian People Organization (AZAPO). "The weapon used against South Africa is isolation, and it is for this reason that AZAPO has extended the isolation of South Africa to the cultural field. . . . Your coming here to perform will be seen as nothing else but collaboration with the evil forces that exploit and oppress the black masses of Azania," the organization wrote to the O'Jays in an unsuccessful bid to get them to cancel their tour last April. Azania is a name for Sough Africa used by blacks.

AZAPO is drawing up a blacklist of those entertainers who perform here that it plans to give to the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity with the request that those artists be banned from entertaining in member countries, publicity chairman George Wauchape said.

In the United States, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson is working with AZAPO to pressure the American black artists from coming here, Wauchape said. Jackson is said to have been instrumental behind the scenes in stopping Vereen and Gladys Knight and the Pips from touring.

At times, the boycott efforts have turned ugly. The house of the black promoter who brought the O'Jays was firebombed. Ray Charles' entourage was stoned as it drove into a black township, and one of his aides received abusive, threatening phone calls in his hotel room, according to yarmi Artzi, the white promoter responsible for Charles' tour.

The pressure finally forced Charles to cancel two concerts in ysoweto. "He was very disappointed, almost on the verge of tears," Artzi said.

But AZAPO, which is in the throes of a severe organizational and ideological crisis, cannot claim widespread support for its position, least of all among the entertainers' fans. Despite AZAPO's call for blacks to shun the O'Jays' concert in Soweto, about 40,000 people showed up.

Black musicians who back up visiting acts, and black promoters, struggling to break into a white-dominated profession are not exited about the ban either. "We are depriving the community of seeing the artists whose records they buy," said black promoter Wildred Zwane."And depriving promoters of making bread themselves. . . .Entertainment should have nothing to do with politics at all."

Zwane's comments are similar to those made about the sports boycott of South Africa, which has directly affected the white majority that votes for the government and thus has forced many changes in sports policies here. But unless the entertainment boycot gets the support of white artists as well, it is unlikely to bother whites or the government very much.

Because of the public lack of suport the Music, Drama, Art and Literature Institte (MDALI), a black-consciousness cultural organization, has chosen to put conditions on visiting artists. "We do want contact, but we want it on our terms and conditions," said MDALI chairman Vusi Nkumane.

Overseas artists already insist on performing before integrated audiences. MDALI wants them to use black promoters, which is difficult since there are few with enough financing or experience to set up tours of big-name artists. MDALI also wants local backup artists to be paid larger fees and promoters to donate a percentageof their profits to black benefits.

"Our campaign is not based on hatred or dislike. We don't hate Americans," said Nkumane. "But we feel that whatever they do with us, should benefit us, not the other group, the whites. A lot of people have misunderstood this boycott.

"Artists abroad are divided themselves. Some are concerned [about the situation in South Africa]. But they don't know how to help us. We want to give them guidelines. We should not treat those entertainers like Millie Jackson who just came for the money," he said.

Jackson unwittingly gave more impetus to the boycott effort than anyone else. Asked on her arrival here if she was going to perform in Soweto, she replied, "Soweto? Where is that place? I've never heard of it." Then she told the local paper, "I'm not a politician. And I am not going to mix my career with politics. All I want is the money."

To say her candor aggrieved people is putting it mildly. "We can never forgive her," said Sipho Sepamla, chairman of the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA). "I didn't go to her show because of that statement," he said.

"What upsets blacks, particularly with black Americans, is that they come here as if they have almost been living in a heavenly world out there, as if they didn't know about the struggle of black people here. They have no excuse for being ignorant," Sepamla said.

Sepamla supports the idea of conditions on visits here because "I'm concerned about the effect there will be on the intellect of balck people if they are denied the exchange of ideas with those genuinely concerned about the struggle in South Africa.

"Artists are people with noble souls and if they understand a cause they are more likely to heed our call. If we do our homework properly I'm sure we can get 100 percent cooperation from artists overseas . . . Artists usually are for the underdog."