The banner headline of the Sunday Times, a South African newspaper, consisted of nothing more than the name of an American: "Mr. Butcher." The Butcher in question was William Butcher, chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank and, the paper said, the man whose "arbitrary and precipitous" decision sank South Africa's currency. That's the view from here. Others might ask what took him so long.

You simply cannot pick up a news- paper here or watch the TV news without concluding that this country has two obsessions -- race and the United States. The slightest utterance by an American political leader about South Africa rates a story in the local papers. Maybe because the two countries are in some ways similar (big, anticommunist and enamored of a frontier that here had Zulus instead of Indians), South African looks to the United States for approval or at least understanding.

It is too much to say that the United States alone -- or even the Chase Manhattan Bank -- could get South Africa to alter fundamentally its racial policies. To many white South Africans, what is perceived in the United States as a civil rights struggle is really about survival -- their way of life, maybe even their existence. Still, American criticism stings, and the decision of Chase and other banks not to renew their loans has hurt. And while those decisions were probably prompted by cold business calculations, the Times had to concede that politics played a role. The world has sent South Africa to the corner.

The anti-apartheid demonstrations in America have made it harder and harder for American firms to do business here, and they have pushed a lethargic Congress and administration finally to take some action. And while none of the sanctions now amounts to much, they are a clear statement of principle.

The culture of the conservative Afrikaner holds that the black is something of a child -- unable to make decisions and therefore incapable of governing. It is ironic that it is the government in Pretoria that fits that stereotype. It has been unable to make the decisions that count. Instead it says over and over again -- as an Afrikaner did to me -- that something has to be done. Just don't ask what. Then comes a recitation of the difficulties political equality would bring.

So in the end the Butchers of American commerce, no matter what their reasons, are doing this country a service. So are the people who go daily to the embassy in Washington and go through the motions of being arrested. They are helping to force South Africa to confront its problems. The recent violence, after all, is nothing new. What's new is that this time the Mr. Butchers of the world have taken notice.

The anti-apartheid demonstrators, the ones some people called dreamers and others called something worse, have made a difference. Bit by bit, they are forcing South Africa to come to grips with its problems. Each and every slap at South Africa holds a mirror to it: See, this is how you look. Some South Africans will continue to look away. More and more, though, cannot. The almost mythical Mr. Butcher of the banner headline has reached into a million pockets, asking for his money.