Johannesburg — They come in ones and twos, after dark, to a small beige house on the edge of town. They are white and black, young and old. They are the uncounted casualties in South Africa's political and economic crisis -- those who, during the past 19 months of unrest, have escaped physical violence but not mental stress.
The converted home where some take evening refuge is one of several ``crisis centers'' in the Johannesburg area. The center provides aid -- mostly a ready ear, steady counsel, and a willingness to care.
Over the past year, these centers report a surge of callers and visitors. Occupancy in mental-health wards is at a record high. And the rate of alcoholism, especially among whites in the suburbs north of town, is at a similar high.
The government does not release statistics on suicide. But Sam Bloomberg, founder and director of the country's sole suicide-prevention clinic, says both whites and blacks are taking their own lives in unprecedented numbers.
The growing signs of mental stress suggest South Africa's upheaval is doing far greater damage than official casualty figures imply. Those statistics are grisly enough. Well over 100 people are reported to have died in the political violence since the new year began -- added to the 1,050 lives lost since September 1984. Most of these are blacks killed by police bullets or by fellow blacks denouncing them as collaborators with the white South African government.
But there are other victims: black and white.
``We are in a siege society, with a garrison mentality, with enormous conflict,'' remarks Prof. Allen Zimbler, chairman of the regional Mental Health Society and a main force in efforts to expand community crisis centers -- especially into all-black areas, where there are none.
The center at the refurbished home in Hillbrow -- a Greenwhich-village-type neighborhood where races mix more easily than elsewhere in Johannesburg -- is one of few with a significant nonwhite constituency. Even there, two-thirds of the visitors are white.
Mr. Zimbler, and others who actually work at the crisis centers, see at least two major causes for the growing need for all communities to have such facilities.
The first is the economic recession -- partly, a spinoff of South Africa's political crisis at home and abroad. The second is the political conflict tearing at the fiber of both black and white society.
Says a worker at the Hillbrow center, ``The cause and effects are hard to quantify. But for instance, since the [government-declared] state of emergency [in various black areas] last year, we have been getting more cases here of anxiety and depression.'' On Tuesday, President Pieter W. Botha pledged to lift the state of emergency, but it is unclear whether his action will reduce widespread unrest.
An organizer of another of the crisis centers -- amid the lawns and swimming pools of Randburg, a white suburb of Johannesbury -- says phone calls have doubled in recent months. Often, the pleas come from ``people who, until a few months ago, had smart jobs, nice houses, and high standards of living.'' Now, they have suddenly lost it all. The worker says she sometimes dispenses not just advice, but emergency food parcels as well.
Suicide-prevention expert Bloomberg also gets calls from whites set adrift by economic fear of the present -- and by wider political concerns about the future.
These people, according to Bloomberg, ``realize that their familiar way of life is going to change. . . . One is,'' he adds, ``a better loser if one is accustomed to losing.'' But, ``we'' -- the South African white community -- ``have had prosperity for 40 years.''
Yet for some years, argues Zimbler, the rules of apartheid have meant that prosperity was purchased at enormous political, emotional, and psychological cost for all involved.
Even before the present crisis, he notes, South African whites had a high instance of divorce, alcoholism, and suicide. ``These are symptoms of a society under stress.''
Government policy, Zimbler argues, has helped ``create this garrison mentality. Whites have been preparing themselves for siege for a long time.'' The crisis has escalated to a point where ``now everyone has to feel it.'' And many whites, he adds, seem to have been left with only two options for coping with it.
Some people felt an urge ``to grab a machine gun and build a wall around them. The other response is total psychological denial of what's going on,'' says Zimbler. Such denial, suggest crisis-center workers, is becoming harder and harder for many whites.
Worse, according to Zimbler, is that the existing system denies most whites the kind of stabilizing outlets that might help them understand and cope with the crisis. ``The white employs blacks for these things: manual labor, like cleaning, or even for taking care of his kids.''
Nearby black townships like Soweto or Alexandra are a world apart -- but a world that is also increasingly under strain.
Some black parents have privately conveyed alarm to the Mental Health Association over what they term a near-total breakdown in parental and other authority in Soweto. And the black unemployed -- the poorest of a community often too poor to help -- have come to the Hillbrow center in growing numbers.
In Eldorado Park -- a community near Soweto for ``colored,'' or mixed-race, families -- a grass-roots campaign is under way for a crisis center in which Zimbler's Mental Health Society hopes to play only an advisory role.
Although results of outside fund-raising have been discouraging, Zimbler is heartened by the strong community backing, even among youth leaders, for the project. ``It has street credibility'' -- something that a crisis center proposed by whites could, during the present state of tense relations, not expect to achieve.
Zimbler is less optimistic about chances for a crisis center in Soweto -- where violence has become endemic, and kids increasingly mistrust many fellow blacks and almost all whites. ``The fundaments of society have been shattered. One has a generation of people who have threatened to kill their own par-ents.''
He sees a need to help families whose youngsters have been imprisoned, wounded, or killed in the townships' political violence; and to aid those who have lost work during the recession. For a crisis center to take root and make a difference, says Zimbler, it must seek to have not only the militant youths but also the generally more conservative older residents involved in its program.
``One can't even talk about providing `mental-health services' in Soweto. What is needed is to convey a basic human recognition, basic human rights, a basic understanding of the pain and anger of the community,'' says Zimbler.
``And the future of this country -- no matter what specific political structure evolves -- will depend on the way people come through this pain.''