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Political reform key to boosting South Africa's stalled economy. If black, Western demands aren't met pinch could tighten

South Africa's divided white and black communities are both feeling the weight of an economic recession brought on partly by Western political pressure. Not all economic news has been bleak. Since the new year, for instance, the South African currency has rebounded slightly on the shoulders of a rise in the world gold price. When the metal glittered at an 18-month high, one Johannesburg newspaper couldn't resist asking its readers: ``Don't you feel that things are getting better?''

But most South Africans -- and most editorial writers -- remain somewhere between apprehensive and gloomy on the state of the economy.

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One key concern is that the value of the South African rand could start sinking all over again if President P. W. Botha fails to satisfy a Western -- and black South African -- call for bold moves toward political reform.

A further worry is the recent announcement that inflation is galloping at a record annual rate of 18.4 percent -- a trend not helped by the government's lowering of interest rates in a bid to get the economy moving again.

Among those who will be closely evaluating Mr. Botha's actions are Western bankers, due to meet next month with a Swiss mediator who is trying to reschedule billions of dollars in South African debts. At stake in the longer run is South Africa's ability to count on a restored credit line to the West -- key to industrial growth.

The foreign banks refused to roll over the debts last year, amid a growing world outcry against South African race policies. South Africa responded by freezing interest payments on part of its debt.

In the months since, many of those white South Africans who can afford to emigrate seem to have left the country.The majority of them seem to be from the English-speaking community, a small relatively well-to-do group within South Africa's white minority.

An executive with the country's largest household-goods movers says his business is booming -- twice-normal volume. A travel agent here adds that South African hotels are suffering from a decrease in foreign visitors. Airlines, on the other hand, are enjoying an increase in bookings for outbound flights. ``I have sold many one-way tickets -- to England, the US, Australia. . . . Young men come in here. Obviously they have lost faith in the country.''

There are, however, many whites, including the travel agent, who either haven't lost faith or can't afford to leave. Many -- though not all -- of these seem to come from the largely Afrikaans-speaking middle class that is the government's main constituency. This middle class is beginning to groan under record inflation rates and rising unemployment.

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``I wanted to go on and study law,'' says Charlotte, an Afrikaans-speaking teenager working as a waitress. ``But I can't afford it.'' She says she doesn't much like her work but figures she can't leave without risking a long spell of unemployment.

She and her classmates had hoped, not too long ago, that they might buy cars once they were out of school. No more. Car sales have plunged in recent months. The sagging of the rand has increased the price tag on imported car parts -- a hike inevitably passed on to consumers.

The country's black labor force -- hundreds of thousands commute daily from black townships into cities like Johannesburg -- is feeling similar pressures. But for blacks, most of whom live closer to the economic edge, the effect is even worse.

In KwaNdebele -- a black ``homeland'' whose residents begin their bus rides to Pretoria, Johannesburg, or surrounding areas before dawn each day -- officials say the economic slowdown has meant a loss in city-job slots. The general recession is also seen here as having made it easier for mining companies -- a rare boom industry in the economy -- to fire thousands of workers in a recent crackdown on black union activity.

Blacks who are laid off, for whatever reason, have, for the most part, two choices. They can stay in their townships and hope things change, or head for rural areas, whose poverty chased many to the commuter townships in the first place.

South African officials are stressing that the economy remains fundamentally healthy. The country sells 60 percent of the world's gold -- as well as platinum and other minerals. Industrial and other exports, mostly to African and Asian countries, are at record highs -- made cheaper by the collapse last summer of South Africa's exchange value, the rand.

Furthermore, rains have relieved a recent drought. Roadside glimpses of thick fields of maize lend credence to predictions that, after several years during which the country has either imported agricultural goods or has broken roughly even, it will export again this year.

Some economists feel that the value of the rand is not likely to nosedive again. Introduction of new currency rules late last year has brought higher levels of US dollars into the central bank, allowing it to help the rand's value steadily rebound.

But the credit crisis and the rand's earlier collapse dealt a lasting psychological blow to whites here. One prominent economic analyst remarks with only slight exaggeration of the change: ``We have had to get used to being a poor country.''

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