Sixty U.S. artists and athletes are launching an unprecedented campaign to refuse to perform in South Africa. The group, led by Harry Belafonte and Arthur Ashe, includes such celebrities as Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Tony Bennett, Tony Randall, Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali and Wilt Chamberlain. Their goal is to obtain pledges from thousands of their colleagues to join in a boycott of South Africa's strict policies of racial segregation known as apartheid.

The campaign for Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid will be kicked off by Ashe and Belafonte at a press conference Wednesday.

"The primary goal of the very large commitment by so many people . . . is to show that there are many people who would have the opportunity to perform in South Africa but chose not to do so on moral grounds," Ashe said. "We want to stop the flow of athletes and actors to South Africa."

In 1968, the U.N. General Assembly first called for a cultural boycott of South Africa and since then it has compiled a list of several hundred athletes who have competed there. It is completing a similar, but smaller, register of entertainers who have also performed there. Several black groups across the United States have long sought to end the stream of U.S. entertainment to South Africa and have picketed performers who have been there. But much of this effort has been locally oriented.

The campaign by Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid is notably different since it is designed as a nationwide movement and includes a coordinated attempt by entertainers to influence others.

The group is seeking pledges and soliciting membership from 10,000 to 15,000 colleagues, according to Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, a Washington lobbying group on African and Caribbean issues that is helping to coordinate the campaign. Lending support to the individuals in the effort, he said, are more than 30 national and international organizations representing more than 20 million people.

Herbert Daughtry, a New York minister who is chairperson of the National Black United Fund, has been an active leader in past boycotts. In the new campaign, he said, it is the "effort that is needed. I'm certain that it's very difficult for entertainers to resist this pressure. Nobody wants to be isolated. Even those geniuses who want artistic freedom don't want to be pariahs."

Yet Ashe and Belafonte acknowledge that the campaign faces a difficult hurdle: the lucrative contracts artists and athletes find in South Africa.

"There's only one reason to go down there--money," Ashe said in a telephone interview. "There's no other reason . . . They have to pay well." Belafonte echoed that theme, saying the payments U.S. and European performers get in South Africa "are enormous sums of money--it's awesome."

Although the payments are often not announced officially, they are known to be high and are often leaked through the South African press. Among the highest was a reported $1.6 million contract for Frank Sinatra in 1981. Ashe pointed to a recent tennis competition in which the winner, Jimmy Connors, walked away with $400,000 after three days of play. "Nobody else pays that kind of money," he said.

Critics of South Africa charge that the government encourages promoters there to pay high fees to performers, since Pretoria's racial policies have isolated it culturally and diplomatically from much of the world.

South Africa "uses everything at its disposal to send signals to the world community to show things are different than they are," Belafonte said. "They send a signal to the world that is highly, highly erroneous."

One of the major areas that draw U.S. performers is Sun City, a $42 million casino and sports resort in Bophuthatswana. In December 1977 the South African government declared Bophuthatswana, a collection of six unconnected parcels of rural countryside northwest of Johannesburg, an independent national state for the 2 million Tswana people, thus depriving them of their South African citizenship and political rights. No country other than South Africa recognizes Bophuthatswana as independent.

"Word needs to get out loud and clear that that is only a phony homeland," Ashe said, as he explained that one of the campaign's objectives is to ensure that performers are not confused when approached about working in the homelands. "Nobody should be fooled."

"If an actor or actress goes to Bophuthatswana, then they are going to South Africa," he added. "They don't always know that or always care."

Howard Manning, an attorney for the singing group The O'Jays, says performances by American artists give credibility to the South African government even though the artists may not mean to make a political statement. The O'Jays made a tour of South Africa, including a concert in the black township of Soweto, in 1981, which was protested by U.S. black groups. To help assuage that protest, the group has pledged not to return. It has joined in the Artists and Athletes campaign.

"The mere acceptance[to perform] by black acts gives approval to the government of South Africa," Manning said. "They are there at the pleasure of the government even though they're going there out of love for the people."

"The government and the press [of South Africa] play up the black artists as if it was a stamp of approval," he added.

Belafonte said the campaign is designed to "raise the consciousness" of U.S. artists so they do not want to play in South Africa. He said it would not be "punitive."

"Artists have played a very, very important part in integrating" the United States, and were instrumental in the women's movement and the antiwar movement. That energy can now be channeled against apartheid, he said. "We have made enormous gains."