At the time of the debate over South African sanctions last year, I called the sanctions legislation an exercise in "domestic racial politics" designed more to woo constituents and salve white American consciences than to promote a transition to a just South African regime. Sen. Edward Kennedy's opinion {op-ed, Oct. 16} that the "sanctions have worked" is a ringing endorsement of that charge.

Kennedy states his belief that the 25-year history of a policy of sanctions against South Africa shows them to have been effective, and says that even more punitive sanctions are needed. He is silent, however, on the central question regarding U.S. policy toward South Africa: What specifically is our goal there? If he agrees with me that that goal must be to encourage reform and to promote an atmosphere in which negotiations toward a nondiscriminatory system can take place, I submit there are no conditions justifying continued sanctions.

Three alleged accomplishments are cited by Kennedy as being the results of sanctions. Each shows the highly ideological content of the arguments of most sanction proponents, as well as their abject hypocrisy and the paucity of action to encourage the development of true democracy in South Africa in the post-apartheid era.

Kennedy's view that the most important aim of the sanctions was "to repudiate constructive engagement" and to "send a strong message of support . . . to the 27 million nonwhite people living under apartheid" is mistaken and absurd on its face. The Reagan administration had already abandoned the policy of "constructive engagement" in 1985. More to the point, no one on the floor of the Senate or in the administration, to my recollection, ever supported apartheid. The true debate has never been, "Is apartheid right?" And support for sanctions should never be considered the litmus test of being anti-apartheid.

The sanctions legislation was not required to prove that the American people oppose legalized racial discrimination. The United States had already been imposing embargoes and sanctions against South Africa for over twodecades. At its absolute most, the 1986 sanctions bill was just another expression of opposition.

Kennedy's statement that the 1986 legislation resulted in "black South Africans" seeing "the American people as allies -- not enemies -- in their struggle" is equally misguided. He describes blacks as struggling against apartheid as if it were an end in itself. But ending apartheid is only the beginning of the search for justice in South Africa. In fact, if a just society is ever to materialize, it will not happen in one dramatic stroke, but over time. True democracy in South Africa can only grow out of negotiations, not a protracted armed struggle resembling a "war of national liberation." This is what reform is all about.

Second, the article claims that the 1986 sanctions bill restored "the good standing of the United States in the rest of Africa." There are democratic governments with respected leaders in Africa. I hardly number among them Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, the ones Kennedy chose to quote. Both of these countries are moving rapidly away from democracy and free enterprise and toward Marxist one-party states.

Finally, Kennedy's distress at the fact that the United States is alone among large powers in taking a punitive approach rings hollow. Disappointed in our allies, he says, "we {sic} did expect the sanctions to become part of a coordinated international effort aimed at producing the kind of external economic pressure that would make a difference in South Africa." The United States has been so comprehensive in imposing sanctions because it has done so for symbolic, domestic political reasons, and not self-interested or high moral ones. Other countries have not been cowed by the specious charge that opposing sanctions is somehow racist support for apartheid.

But again, what "difference" does Kennedy want us to make in South Africa? The end of apartheid is only the beginning; how apartheid ends is crucial. If its end is a protracted, bloody struggle carried on under the ideological banner of a war of national liberation, tyranny will replace apartheid in South Africa.

The truth is that economic sanctions will neither end apartheid nor, sadly, promote democracy in South Africa. At best, sanctions send a tepid signal of disapproval. At worst, they strengthen the radicals and extremists in South Africa in their struggle to isolate the moderate South Africans, black and white, who seek a stable, peaceful transition to a just regime.

Before we take more emotional steps based on a self-imposed sense of guilt about our own discriminatory past, we ought to clarify what our goals are. If they are to promote reform and negotiation, followed by true democracy, we have no choice but to encourage development of the modern sector of South Africa's economy on a nondiscriminatory basis.

But if our goal is to accelerate polarization, raise the expectations of the radicals at the extremes of the struggle, undermine the modern economy and make certain that negotiation and reform are impossible, then more punitive sanctions -- such as those advocated by Kennedy -- are precisely what is needed, and hopes will dim while the flames rise.

The writer is a Republican senator from Wyoming.