The clerk in the downtown department store asks politely if she can be of any help.

When the shopper answers, she listens carefully to the accent and wrinkles her nose with a frown.

"Ah American," she says. "Don't think much of your President Carter."

In a city where clothes are vaunted as "American style," where American music, American cars and other American goods sometime seem to be the ultimate, the word on the tips of most tongues these days is America.

For years now, South Africa has looked to America for inspiration and acceptance, regarding it as the key to its way back into the good graces of the West. Suddenly, the white's dream of a great champion has vanished and the United State has seemingly become foreign enemy No. 1 worse even than the Soviet Union.

This change in the perception of America has unsettled the whites in some ways even more than the rising tide of black nationalism.

Mention the names of Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young or the arms embargo these days and you draw a scowl at best.

"He's trying to make us into a bit of a whipping boy," a matronly hotel clerk says of Carter.

"Doen't seem to care much about people's right in all these countries," one of her customers adds.

It is one of a half-dozen criticism of American pressure on South Africa frequently heard in bars, at [WORD ILLEGIBLE] parties, in stores and offices. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Africa has become a highly [WORD ILLEGIBLE] country in the past two week [WORD ILLEGIBLE]

In the current heated [WORD ILLEGIBLE] campaign, the ruling Party has seized every [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the United States an [WORD ILLEGIBLE] sensing an issue. side, has joined the bandwagon in denouncing pressure from Washington.

"It's not the people of America," a middle-aged man explains after the barroom conversation has, as usual, focused on the patron with the American accent, "It's your government."

White South Africans, even those who say that racial discrimination in their country has changed, seem both greatly irritated by what they see as the U.S. leadership in the U.N. arms embargo, voted last week, and insistent that the embargo is going to have no effect on their country whatsoever.

"What an I supposed to say" asks gun dealer Reg Aikman. "It isn't going to hurt. We don't got our guns directly from the States anyway.

Then why the anger over the arms embargo, he is asked. "It's just stupid," he says with a shrug.

Stupid or not the arms embargo has touched a raw South African nerve, and Jimmy Carter's name evokes no parise.

White South Africans seem hurt and confused by the embargo and the pressure from Washington for social change.

"What exactly does Mr. Carter want us to do" the matronly hotel clerk asks. Even liberal South Africans say they are not sure what sort of changes would please the U.S. government, and they add that they are not convinced the chances are any of America's business anyway.

Moreover, there is the fear among liberals that foreign pressure is going to drive more traditionally conversative Afrikaners into a corner.

Ian J. Hetherington, a British-born executive at a local company has been in South Africa for several years.

He says the embargo is going to do more damage to U.S. South African relations than it will to South Africa's arms capability.

"We make all our own equipment to deal with "errorism" he says, "so the whole thing doesn't make any sense to me."

One of the things it's doing to us," he says of the embargo. "Is to unity South Africans both blacks and white. The American administration has really cut itself adrift. It has no credibility anymore."

Hetherington insists that there have been changes in South Africa over the past five years, but that foreigners refuse to recognize them.

"I think we've gotten to the point that there's nothing here we can do that pleases anybody overseas," he says, "So then you just go about your business and let the cards fall where they will. If we ask the American governmnet what would please them, they say they aren't going to tell us what to do internally."

Hetherington's feelings represent those of much of white South Africa - feelings of uncertainty and above all, of anger at what they see as the Carter administration's willingness to make a public issue of South Africa for political gain while refusing to listen privately to South Africa's explanations.

From a practical point of view, the country preduces the Belgian F-N rifle and under French license, Eland armored cars and Mirage jets. It is weil known that industry here has moved heavily into electronic technology applicable to weaponry.

The South African government, out of concern for the future of its French relationship is known to be eying the Israeli Kfir fighter as an alternative. Israel, itself hard-put for allies, has been quietly helpful to the defense establishment in Pretoria.

From the thrust of President Carter's statements, the new, tightened arms ban should have an effect at least on civilian weapons, but South African gun dealers say it will not.

Interestingly, should the embargo work, one of the larger losers would be Soviet-bloc countries. It is estimated that the bloc supplies up to half of South Africa's private weapons, such as Soviet-made Baikal shotguns and Czech Brno automatic rifles. They are displayed in arms shops next to American-made Colt pistols.

Even if civilian arms stopped coming in tomorrow, there are already an estimated 1.5 million licensed guns in the hands of the 4 million whites, making this perphaps the most heavily armed private populace in the world.

Moreover, those figures do not include several hundred thousand licensed weapons known to civilian hands.