THE RIPPLES of Gov. Douglas Wilder's sanctions announcement are spreading in Virginia. He had called for state institutions and agencies to divest themselves of shares in companies that do business in South Africa. In the universities, the state treasury, the state retirement board (where most of the money is) and elsewhere -- locally in Fairfax County, for instance -- steps are being taken or explored to follow through. Supporters have hailed his order as putting Virginia in step with a moral cause, and it has received national and even international notice.

It has long since been resolved that states and other public bodies can decide to invest funds for which they are responsible according to political criteria as well as financial ones. That the practice is widespread, however, does not diminish the requirement to ask in particular instances whether it's wise. Virginians cannot be relieved of this burden just because they are doing something that others have done in the past.

The fact is that Virginia, in the name of getting in step with the anti-apartheid movement, is getting out of step with current political reality. Things are stirring in South Africa. The apartheid constitution and some of the basic laws are still on the books, but the white minority regime under a new leadership has allowed the black majority to begin speaking for itself, and as a result the first formal constitutional talks to abolish apartheid are within sight. This has been enough to set the rest of the world discussing the specific terms under which to remove sanctions. This is the moment Virginia chooses to install them.

Virginia is now responding to the most heartening signs of change that South Africa has seen in this century by symbolically punishing the government that is making the change. The state is taking a step that, by shriveling the South African economy, adds to black misery as well as to white isolation, and this at a time when blacks in South Africa have never been more in need of the economic resources and opportunities to ease their community's desperate predicament. You could argue that Virginia's disinvestment, coming late and perhaps not being large, won't really make much of a difference. But that's not a reason to disinvest. It's a reason not to.