When martial law was imposed in Poland last month, world gold markets gave a collective yawn.
But in South Africa, financial analysts fidgeted uncomfortably. Major world disruptions no longer automatically kicked up the price of their bullion, it seemed.
It was one more signal that gold prices cannot be counted on to carry this nation, the world's largest producer of gold, into another boom year after two years of exceptional growth, say many analysts here.
As a result, South Africa is preparing for a year of ''consolidation,'' as many analysts here are calling it. That means the economy will be hard pressed to afford many of the ''reforms'' the government has committed itself to on the economic front. The reforms include improved housing, education, and social services for blacks - expenditures that would bring blacks closer to the standards enjoyed by whites.
''Money is a major instrument of reform'' in South Africa, points out Harry Schwarz, chief economic spokesman for the opposition Progressive Federal Party. ''We need 6 percent growth to make a real inroads'' toward greater economic equality among the races, he says.
By contrast, economic forecasters here look for growth between zero and 2.5 percent (adjusted for inflation) for South Africa in 1982. The economy grew by more than 4 percent last year, it is estimated, and 8 percent in 1980.
South Africa's minister of finance, Owen Horwood, recently warned South Africans they were entering a period in which it would be necessary to ''tighten belts.'' A leading South African financial magazine has labeled 1982 and 1983 the ''difficult years.''
For blacks, the difficulty will be gaining ground in terms of jobs and wages in a sluggish economy. Although the wage gap between whites and blacks has narrowed noticeably since 1973, whites on average still earned more than four times as much as blacks in 1980.
For all South Africans, the slow-moving economy of 1982 will be exacerbated by persistently high inflation. Consumer prices are forecast to rise between 10 and 15 percent this year.
A high rate of inflation is viewed as an inevitable trade-off for increasing economic equality among races in South Africa. Wages must rise faster than productivity increases in order to close the black-white earnings gap, which is seen as a minimum requirement for maintaining social stability without any significant political reforms.