The United States, officially repulsed by South Africa's official racism, has yet to devise any effective means of dealing with it. We have tried diplomatic tongue-clucking. We have placed restrictions on transfers of military goods. Particularly during the Carter years, we stated our disapproval more directly. Now, under the Reagan administration, we are trying open- armed friendliness in an effort to nudge South Africa away from its most odious racial policies.

None of it has made the slightest difference in South Africa's treatment of its black majority. Maybe, in terms of American influence, it's a hopeless task. But Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) doesn't think so. He begins with the notion that while South Africa would like to have American approval--acceptance in the family of civilized nations--what it covets more is American investment: through individuals, through institutions and through American-based firms doing business there. This is the basis for Solarz's no-more- nonsense legislative proposal, which, at the very least, ought to trigger an important policy debate here.

The bill has three main provisions. It would establish a set of legally enforceable fair-employment standards for American companies operating in South Africa; it would bar U.S. banks from making loans to the South African government, "except for loans made for educational, housing or health facilities which are available on a nondiscriminatory basis in areas open to all population groups"; and it would ban the importation of South African gold coins, including the krugerrand, of which millions have been sold in America.

The fair-employment principles Solarz has in mind are similar to those outlined in the Sullivan Plan--except that the code drawn up by the Rev. Leon Sullivan calls for voluntary compliance. "By making fair-employment principles mandatory," Solarz contends, "we would overcome two serious problems with the present voluntary approach: first, that half of the American firms in South Africa have not signed the Sullivan principles, and, second, that at least a third of the signatories have failed to implement the code effectively."

The Solarz proposal, though it will disappoint advocates of full disinvestment, does have its attractions. It constitutes a solid statement of American principle, and its focus is on changing conditions in South Africa, not merely punishing the government. "I have no illusion that passage of this legislation would bring the apartheid system to its knees," says Solarz, "but it would make a significant difference in the lives of approximately 70,000 black men and women who work for American firms in South Africa. It would also limit U.S. sources of foreign exchange for the South African government, and, most important of all, it would send a powerful signal that the United States is prepared to oppose apartheid by deed as well as word."

Such a signal would be important, particularly in view of present U.S. policy, which supposes that being nice to South Africa will pay off in changing South African behavior, both internally and internationally. It clearly isn't working. Solarz is operating from a different premise: that while we might not be able to eliminate apartheid, we can at least stop being a party to it.