South Africa's strategic oil-from-coal industry has broken through into the American synfuels market with a contract to act as consultant and colicenser for a firm building a substitute natural gas plant in North Dakota.

The contract was disclosed in Sasol's 1980 annual report. The state-run coal, oil and gas corporation has the only proven commercial coal conversion operation in the world today.

The government is eager to sell its oil-manufacturing expertise and technology to other countries both for the financial gain and for the public relations value to counter the campaign to isolate South Africa because of its racial policies. It is particularly interested in gaining a foothold in the American synfuel industry, which the U.S. Department of Energy is subsidizing.

Sasol's annual report also said that "of the first $100 million allocated by the U.S. Department of Energy for design work on synfuel projects, $60 million will go to projects with which Sasol is involved either as consultant or potential licenser."

Sasol was established in the early 1950's by the government to insure against an international oil embargo because of South Africa's racial segregation policy of apartheid.

Because of this purpose, Sasol has acquired a symbolic importance among opponents of apartheid. In June guerrillas set off explosions at fuel storage plants at two Sasol plant sites. It was the worst case of industrial sabotage in South African history, causing fuel losses and damage amounting to an estimated $7 million.

Nevertheless, when the two massive coal conversion plants under construction, known as Sasol I and Sasol II, are completed in 1982 at a cost of $6.6 billion, they are expected to supply between 30 and 47 percent of South Africa's domestic oil needs. The country has no proven reserves of oil.

For the North Dakota synthetic gas plant, Sasol will act as consultant and colicenser to the builders. Only one stage of the coal conversion process, that of gasification, will be involved in this plant.