The nation's only sizable campus protest movement has prodded universities to slash $47 million from their stock portfolios in the name of independence for South African blacks under white minority rule.

Financial analysts note that the figure is a tiny percentage of American higher education's $5 billion interest in the 350 U.S. firms doing business in South Africa, and student leaders concede that it is a hollow victory in the battle to end apartheid.

But the movement claims that a continued stream of stock divestments this spring and the growing national debate on the issue mark a milestone in its struggle to force corporate America to put social concerns over profits.

American corporations have made minor concessions to the movement, but, as one industry spokesman commented, "Pulling out of South Africa is financially out of the question."

Yet today, students from Stanford to Harvard are on the cutting edge of the burgeoning new movement that has enlisted political and economic support from trade unions, church groups, civil rights leaders and members of Congress to change the South Africa regime.

A spokesman for one major corporation noted, "They're still gadflies; there are more of them now, and they're more irritating, but they aren't affecting our profits one iota."

And it is corporate investment in South Africa that the movement has pegged as its main target - a backdoor method of affecting foreign policy that has sparked wide debate.

Some, like Harvard President Derek Bok, argue that selling stock in firms dealing with South Africa is an ineffective way to combat apartheid (racial separation) policies. Others, like Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) contend that it is a powerful first step in pressuring the white regime.

Tsongas, in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month, called for a five-year plan in which all universities would clean out their portfolios of stock in companies with South African business dealings.

This spring alone, over $12 million in university stock holdings have been sold. But only a handful of schools like Hamshire College in Amherst, Mass., the University of Massachusetts and the University of Wisconsin have voted for total divestment.

Hundreds of other universities around the nation have opted for partial divestiture, are considering some form of economic action or, as Harvard's Bok suggests, are using their shareholder status to promote better working conditions for blacks and to demand a curtailment of investment in South Africa.

General Motors, for example, faced a stockholders' resolution at the annual meeting last week. The resolution called for a ban on sales to South African police and military, and was supported by Overland College, the United Presbyterian Church and the United Methodist Church.

One General Motors director, the Rev. Leon Sullivan, head of the Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia and a veteran of the 1960 civil rights boycotts, has taken a leading role in pushing universities to provide fair and equal treatment to the 450,000 South African black workers in American firms there.

Three years ago he devised a set of principles which were signed by 116 of the largest American firms doing business in South Africa. "My attitude toward corporations in South Africa is this," he said: "change it or leave it."

But Sullivan is against the more radical movement demands advocated by the Rev. Jesse Jackson's "Operation Puch" to force U.S. companies to pull out of South Africa. Timothy Smith, of the New York-based Inter-faith Center on Corporate Responsibility, said, "The Sullivan principles are a Band-Aid for a brain tumor."

The movement's sting has been most successful on Wall Street, where more than a dozen major moneylenders, including Chase Manhattan and the Chemical Bank of New York, have agreed to cut off funds to the apartheid regime.

Yet the legacy of bloodshed and fear for South Africa's 22 million blacks continues with no sign of U.S. firms pulling up their nearly $1.8 billion stake.

Indeed, IBM spokesman Tom Mattausch said, "We think corporations should be able to do business in any country within the regulations of the U.S. government. We have no plans to change our operations in South Africa."

Efforts to force U.S. companies to get out of South Africa are "not politically practical," said Rep. Stephen Soarz (D.N.Y.), who has filed legislation prohibiting new investment in South Africa.

"I don't think you can muster a majority for total disinvestment," he said.

Timothy Smith, whose organization represents about $6 billion in church financial power, agrees with the congressman. "Politicians are not going to break new ground without sizable constituent support."

The success of the movement so far is that it has gotten a great many people talking about the plight of blacks living thousands of miles away, movement leaders say, claiming a grassroots victory.

According to a study released early this month by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, a majority of Americans now favor economic sanctions against South Africa to end apartheid.

However, the movement, says David Liff of the Washington-based Investor Responsibility Research Center, "has had no significant impact on the financial market - but it has great symbolic value."

Tsongas also concedes, "Divestiture will not deliver a crippling economic blow to South Africa."

"It is entirely appropriate as a moderate first step in the application of pressure," he said recently at the Tufts Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy. "It allows South Africa time to change its policies; it establishes a firm dialogue, not an ultimatum."