Johannesburg — South Africa has a secret: There is a second gold boom under way here, rivaling the peak price period of 1980. Gold bugs worldwide no doubt have noticed recent strengthening in the price of bullion, which is fluctuating around the $500 (US) per ounce level. But compared with the record gold price of $850 per ounce in early 1980, today's price remains relatively weak.
Here in South Africa - the noncommunist world's largest producer of gold - the falling value of the local rand in dollar terms means bullion is fetching near-record prices. In rand terms, gold mines are earning about as much per ounce now as during the 1980 boom.
This development is adding new glitter to South Africa's gold-plated economy. Despite a recession, economists here are beginning to see recovery on the horizon - far sooner than they had expected.
Indeed, although South Africa has traditionally lagged months behind the economic drift of the major industrial countries, some economists say it is poised to resume growth almost in tandem with them this year.
Today's strength in the price of gold is a major surprise on the world economic scene. The recent steady increase in the price of bullion does not follow the pattern of the past decade. There are no political crises in the world at the moment; there has been prolonged sluggishness in the world economy; inflation has subsided in the industrial nations; and an oil glut has replaced the oil crisis.
Normally these factors would have dragged down the price of gold.
But gold analysts here say bullion has been rising on a fairly firm footing, which diminishes chances of a sudden drastic falloff in the price. And although fairly broad fluctuations in the price of gold are expected for 1983, many observers expect a general improvement this year.
''Gold will finish the year higher than where it is now,'' forecasts Nico Czypionka, a senior economist with Standard Bank. ''The gold boom is very real.''
''It is a market that has broadly moved into a bull phase,'' says Robin Plumbridge, chairman of Gold Fields of South Africa.
The world debt crisis is the overriding factor propelling gold higher during conditions that might otherwise depress its price, some analysts say.
Speculators who buy and sell gold as an investment had been largely absent from the market until a few months ago. Now they are investing in gold, heeding investment advisers who say portfolios should now contain at least some gold.
Some analysts also cite tentative signs of economic recovery in the United States. Recovery itself is expected to support a higher gold price, to the extent monetary purse strings are loosened to accommodate growth.
What all this has meant for South Africa is a brighter economic outlook than had been forecast. The South African economy had been expected to begin a mild revival only toward mid-1984, but now some analysts say it may be sooner.
Gold is South Africa's largest export earner, and its contribution to the nation's balance of payments has already increased sharply. A balance-of-payments deficit suffered during the first three quarters of 1982, due in part to the trough in the price of gold, has turned to surplus.