Johannesburg — Thousands of angry South Africans staged protest meetings this week, waving clenched fists and denouncing the government. But the protesters, oddly enough, are white civil servants, the most traditionally loyal of government supporters. The fact that they are up in arms about economic conditions here proves that this country's recession is biting deep -- deep enough to cause the government potential political problems among the white electorate.
President P. W. Botha touched off the protests with an announcement this week that civil servants' yearly bonus checks would be cut by 30 percent as of April 1. The cut is part of an overall austerity program aimed at increasing public-sector productivity and reducing the country's large civil-service payroll by about 5 percent. Included in the program is a suspension of all further hiring in the civil service without cabinet-level permission.
Mr. Botha tried to ease the blow by saying earlier that members of Parliament would take a 3 percent pay cut this year. But the civil servants were not placated.
``We are living on brown bread already,'' complained an employee of South Africa's national airline.
Angry railway workers began protesting Tuesday in Johannesburg, threatening labor unrest unless the government rescinded its decision to cut bonus pay. Teachers, nurses, and postal workers have also expressed unhappinesss with the new austerity measures.
With the exception of a brief upturn in early 1984, South Africa's economy has been in a deep slump since l982. Falling gold prices have reduced the country's export earnings. Severe drought forced the country to import costly food staples last year. And the strong US dollar has driven the rand to record lows.
These external factors have been exacerbated by rampant government spending and an inability to control the rate of inflation, which was l3 percent in 1984. The country's inflation rate has been in the double digits for 11 consecutive years.
These economic problems have been felt mostly by blacks until now. Blacks are estimated to be experiencing an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent. Many blacks in rural areas face nothing less than a struggle for survival. Since being laid off their jobs, they have been forced to live in tribal homelands, where the drought has made subsistence agriculture impossible.
But now whites are feeling the pinch too. Interest on home mortgages is 20 percent. Whites are even beginning to find suitable jobs hard to find. Furthermore, the government raised rail transportation tariffs by 30 percent and the price of gasoline by 40 percent this year.
Many observers wonder if the troubled economy will drive white voters out of the National Party, or at least threaten their support of President Botha.
The party most likely to gain support from disaffected white voters is the ultra-right-wing Conservative Party, which continues to advocate strict, old-style racial segregation throughout South African society.
But the National Party is in a fortunate position: Under the new Constitution South Africa adopted last year, general elections are not required for five years. The last round of general elections occurred in 1981.
About 30 percent of the country's labor force works for the government. Similarly, some 30 percent of all whites here hold down governmental jobs. Consequently, the public employees' unrest could easily translate into political trouble for the government.