outh Africa's civil servants, traditionally one of the main pillars of the government's support, are in a state of open dissatisfaction, widening cracks that have recently begun to appear in a government that has been in power 34 years.

The crisis is symptomatic of what is happening generally in South Africa, as a burgeoning industrial economy strains at the structure of the country's strict segregationist system.

The economy, and the civil service with it, has outgrown the supply of skilled white manpower, and must now try to make up the shortfall with blacks. The trouble is that, to protect whites from competition, the government for years denied blacks the right to acquire skills or to enter skilled occupations.

Although this is changing now, training is slow and the government is nervous about reaction from its right wing and from the entrenched bureaucracy.

For their part, the civil servants are pressing a campaign for satisfaction of their grievances. Earlier this month, the Public Servants' Association called an emergency meeting in the capital of Pretoria to discuss complaints including poor pay and the fear that the huge number of vacancies in its ranks--there is a 20 percent staff shortage in the civil service--will be filled by blacks.

After the meeting, which chairman Gerrit Van der Veen said was characterized by "emotional demands for drastic action," the association issued a statement demanding a 25 percent pay increase in the next national budget due in March.

Otherwise, it warned, there would be so many resignations from the civil service that essential services would collapse.

Finance Minister Owen P. Horwood almost certainly will be unable to meet the pay demand. The falling price of gold is cutting anticipated government revenues from that major source by nearly half this year, and South Africa is moving into recession after a boom.

The association's warning of a breakdown of services is real enough, as the minister of manpower utilization, Stephanus P. Botha, admitted in a speech in December, and the deterioration in government services is more apparent each day.

To get a telephone repaired can take days, a new phone years, because of the shortage of technicians. The post office, which runs the telephone service, lost a quarter of its staff last year.

The police force is understaffed by 5,000 and violent crime is increasing. The Department of Justice admits to being so short of staff that court cases are delayed for months.

State schools are desperately short of teachers. Last year 4,000 resigned in Transvaal Province alone, and 75,000 pupils in the province's white schools are missing some lessons each day.

The position in black schools, where there are fewer than half the number of teachers needed, is much worse.

The shortage of nurses is so acute that only 1,017 of the 2,000 beds in Johannesburg Hospital are being used. An article in the December issue of the South African Journal of Hospital Medicine admitted that patients were being discharged too soon because there were not enough nurses to care for them.

Every government department is under strain.

Last year even the auditor general, Parliament's watchdog against corruption and waste, reported that he could not complete his checks efficiently because he was short of staff.

Within the civil service, the strains are magnified.

A huge bureaucracy has been built up to administer the apartheid system, which is based on the concept that there are 14 distinctive "national groups" living in this country: whites, Coloreds (people of mixed blood), Indians (descendants of immigrants from India) and 11 different African tribes.

Each is supposed to be politically separate from the rest--blacks with separate ethnic "homelands" that can be given nominal independence--and each must have its own bureaucratic structure.

The result is that 26.4 percent of South Africa's 1,388,000 employed whites are in the civil service. That does not count thousands more who work in large corporations that operate the nationalized steel industry, railways, airways, radio and television services and the national electricity supply system.

Although it professes to be a bastion of free enterprise, South Africa probably has the highest number of state employes outside the Communist Bloc. But because of their numbers, the civil servants are poorly paid.

The government cannot match salaries in the private sector, which are inflated by the shortage of skills. An economist with a master's degree working for the government takes home the equivalent of $800 a month after tax; his counterpart in private business earns double that amount.

Given the need for skills in the private sector, civil servants are being poached in droves.

The obvious answer is to replace them with blacks, but this is politically even more difficult than allowing black advancement in the private sector.

The central ethos of the South African government is Afrikaner nationalism, the Afrikaners being descendants of 16th century Dutch settlers who today make up 60 percent of the white population.

The civil service is overwhelmingly Afrikaner--in effect the administrative arm of the nationalist movement. It is also deeply conservative in racial matters. The mildly reformist minister in charge of black affairs, Piet Koornhof, has complained of "tortoises" in his huge department whose deliberate inertia blocks his initiatives.

There is deep-seated resistance to the admission of too many blacks into the civil service. The idea of eventually having a predominantly black administrative arm for the white Afrikaner government is not easily contemplated here.

Early last year Andries P. Treurnicht, the minister of state administration who is leader of the conservative wing of the ruling National Party, said: "If one's standpoint is one of division or separation of power . . . then it goes without saying that this will be reflected in one's administration."

By September, as the crisis in the civil service worsened, Treurnicht had changed his mind and was speaking openly of the need to employ more blacks.

On Dec. 15, the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld, which closely reflects government thinking, said: "The idea that the civil service can manage without Coloreds if only the whites are paid enough won't stick.

"The private sector already has accepted that it will be increasingly dependent on black and brown manpower, and while the civil service is more vulnerable than the private sector, the same tendency will have to manifest itself there."

In Afrikaner politics this is dynamite. The extreme right-wing Herstigte Nasionale Party, a breakaway group that believes the government is going soft on apartheid and that made significant gains at a general election last April, is capitalizing on the dissatisfaction among the civil servants.

It is accusing the government not only of planning integration of the civil service, but also of using blacks to avoid paying white Afrikaners a decent wage.

The threat of gains by the Herstigte Nasionale Party already has caused the government to slow down many of its plans to modify apartheid, but in the case of the civil servants it has little choice but to carry on and face the political consequences. They could be severe.