I asked Robert Mugabe, the prime minister of Zimbabwe who is visiting Washington this week, how he felt about efforts to withdraw American investments from South Africa_an issue facing D.C. residents in the form of a bill pending before the City Council.

"Economic sanctions, if undertaken wholeheartedly, could bring South Africa to realize that its system of apartheid is wrong," Mugabe said. "What I wouldn't want to see is a half-hearted attempt or an attempt by one country that would be undermined by another."

His response was insightful and realistic, characteristic of a man who understands the nature of the beast. In wrangling with sanctions against South Africa, Mugabe cautions, keep in mind what will and will not work.

Unfortunately, many proponents of sanctions against South Africa are not sure what will work and in desperate efforts to do something--anything--choose short-term, symbolic measures.

The D.C. divestiture bill and the recently formed Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid are two such examples.

In both cases, the solutions offered are too simplistic--and destructively negative.Listen to D.C. City Council member John L. Ray (D-At Large), whose heart, at least, is in the right place.

"We in America must help raise the cost of the apartheid policy," he wrote recently, never saying who would pay that cost. "The divestiture proposal presently before the council offers us a rare opportunity to act on the basis of those beliefs with no sacrifice of our own."

Ray adds that the city's investments could be easily "swapped" for other equally profitable investments.

But that hardly solves the problem because it doesn't envision using any of those funds--if not the invested funds, most of which cannot be spent, then other public or private monies--in ways that might have impact.

To use an extreme example, what if the African National Congress, the premier--albeit banned--black liberation group in South Africa, wanted to use the divested money to finance a military effort? Fat chance.

As an alternative that might be more acceptable politically, why has there been no mention of using funds to strengthen the nine-nation Southern Africa Development Coordinating Conference or to put together a long-term, Israeli-style lobbying effort here?

Washington residents always are being asked to "rail against" and "oppose" South Africa, which is easy to say if you live 13,000 miles away. Much closer to the people and the issues involved, the "Lagos 2000" economic development plan, drawn up in Africa, holds as a basic tenet that the best hope for all black Africans is the simple ability to feed themselves. But the crucial issue of hunger is not in question here.

Instead, what occurs is typified by the reaction last spring of some area activists when a white South African school inspector came to Washington, ostensibly to see how well black Americans students perform given equal opportunities: Ban him. Period.

Says Mugabe: "I don't think this will work. How can we say the person barred is for or against apartheid. We only end up discriminating like they do in the South African regime."And now, at a press conference held yesterday, artists and atheletes have declared they don't want to go to South Africa because of "subtle deceptions and deliberate smokescreens devised by South Africa in its ongoing attempt to lure celebrities within its borders."

Well, just suppose the O'Jays, to name one group of artists involved in the effort, had employed a bit of subtlety of their own and, instead of singing about sex, took a revolutionary ballad to the heart of South Africa. To be sure, they wouldn't be invited back.

But then, the onus of censorship and restriction would remain where it belongs, with the South Africans and not with us. This is important when attempting to generate enduring American support for the cause. For Jet magazine to report that the O'Jays were kicked out of South Africa would have far more impact than a press release that the group is not going to perform in Bophuthatswana anymore.

But as Mugabe noted, such actions require a "whole-hearted effort" and, unlike divestiture bills or bans, a willingness to make a sacrifice.