Ostriches are not the usual symbol of apartheid, but their growing presence in the American Southwest is an indication of how South Africa's racial problems reverberate around the world in strange ways.

Since a 1986 import ban on South African ostriches took effect as part of the Congress' Anti-Apartheid Act, a group known as the American Ostrich Association has been promoting the big birds as a new cash crop for American ranchers.At present, according to Tom Mantzel, the association's executive director, there are perhaps 1,000 ostrich ranchers in the United States, mostly in Texas and Oklahoma, and the number is growing.

"This is a very viable industry. It is not something someone just cooked up," he said.

Ostriches are prized primarily for their feathers and skin and Mantzel predicts the day will come when ostrich meat will be greatly valued.

"It tastes just like prime veal and it has very little cholesterol," he said.

The import ban has ostrich products all the more valuable, prompting greater interest in ostrich raising, Mantzel said.

South Africa, the world's leading ostrich producer, raises about 73,000 of the birds each year, Mantzel said.

In the United States a pair of adult ostriches sells for as much as $20,000, but lesser birds can be bought for as little as $1,200.

That represents an increase from two years ago when the cheapest pair cost around $1,000, said Bill Haney, who owns the Big Tex Ostrich Ranch at Angleton, Texas, near Houston.

Haney is typical of the current U.S. ostrich rancher. He bought two pairs of birds last year after deciding that the eight-foot tall birds could be moneymakers. Ostriches are not his only business - he also owns a liquor store.

For example, ostrich ranching has certain advantages over the more traditional cattle raising, Mantzel said.

Ostriches can be raised on smaller pieces of land than cattle. Haney has 80 birds on his 120-acre spread.

Unlike cows - which are able to produce only one calf a year - female ostriches can lay 50 to 70 eggs a year, he said. And the whole bird can be used after slaughter.

The feathers, which sell for as much a $150 a pound, are used as dusters for technical equipment and as fashionable decorations for hats and dresses.

Ostrich skin is popular for shoes and boots. "I was in New York recently and saw some Gucci shoes made of ostrich skin that sold for $995," Mantzel said.

Each adult ostrich represents about 14 pairs of boots, a couple of feather dusters and a billfold or two, Haney said.

But Mantzel thinks the future lies in ostrich meat.

"It fits in well with the trend toward healthier foods," he said.

Texas and Oklahoma have become ostrich havens because the land and climate in parts of the states are arid and brush-covered like the African lands where ostriches are indigenous.

They are natives of the Sub-Sahel region of the continent, which is the area south of the Sahara Desert.

Texas is also home to a number of ranches and big-game parks where exotic animals are raised, he said.

Haney said the birds "make great watchdogs. They are real possessive."

But when Haney looks at his flock of gawky birds, he doesn't see only money. He has named a few of the birds and shows them off to curious neighbors like a proud father.

"They're just nosy little youngsters," Haney said as 4-year-old females pick and snap at his hat and jacket. The birds are curious and are attracted to shiny, colorful objects.

"They're sort of like young kids up until they're a year old. Then they turn into teenagers and start raising hell," said Haney.

Mantzel said he does not think ranchers accustomed to the macho image of cattle raising will have difficulty making the transition to ostriches.

In the economically depressed Southwest, ranchers are more cnncerned with money than image, he contends.

Besides, the ostrich is a lot tougher than one might think.

"You get a big male that weighs 200 to 300 pounds, he can kick you into the middle of next week," Mantzel said.