CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA -- In a major shift in its strategy for gradually dismantling apartheid, the South African government will give economic reform priority over political reform in the next decade, according to the country's leading governmental and private economists.

While President Pieter W. Botha has not explicitly disclosed the shift in strategy for dealing with the inequities faced by South Africa's disenfranchised black majority, the new agenda emerged in discussions with his senior economic advisers as the 1988 session of Parliament began here last week.

It is certain to run into stiff opposition from antiapartheid activists, who already are asking whether the switch in priorities is a ruse by the white-minority government for stalling on the question of sharing power with the 26 million blacks.

But given recent signs of economic recovery, Cabinet officials say they are committed to implementing what Deputy Finance Minister Kent Durr calls the "new economic dispensation" before giving blacks a role in national politics.

Beginning to undo apartheid without redistributing the country's wealth by bringing blacks into the economic mainstream would be a recipe for disaster, warned Frederic du Plessis, the country's leading Afrikaner businessman and one of Botha's key economic advisers.

"People who suddenly get political power without economic power are a time bomb for revolution," du Plessis said.

Moreover, he said, the government must first put the country's economy on an even keel to be able to meet the enormous costs of economic and political reform.

"It makes no sense to me to be playing with nice constitutional models while the economy is in flames. If you have a weak economy, you can play with all kinds of castles in the air but find you are incapable of bringing them to reality," said du Plessis, chairman of the giant Sanlam insurance and property conglomerate and a member of Botha's Economic Advisory Council.

The agenda for economic reform, which already has begun in some areas, includes improving job opportunities for blacks, upgrading education, increasing black home ownership, creating more mobility of blacks and generally broadening the middle-class base of South Africa's black population, government officials said.

While the notion that bringing blacks into the economic mainstream is essential for attaining stability is not a new one, the government's emphasis in the last year has been to explore methods of incremental political reform, while working in the background to try to lift up blacks' standard of living.

Now, however, there is a growing realization in the government that it is pointless, in their view, to move forward with plans to share power without addressing the reality that blacks now command 50 percent of the country's purchasing power. In contrast, blacks own only 2 percent of its assets.

An additional motive seems to stem from the perception in government that if the black majority's economic situation is improved, there will be less demand for an abrupt transfer of power.

Or, as Chris Heunis, the minister for constitutional planning, put it, "Unrest is directly related to unemployment and economic hardship."

In a remark that is certain to strike antiapartheid activists as confirmation of their fears that giving economic reform first priority is a tactic for postponing political reform, du Plessis said, "If people see their condition is improving, they will be quite happy to wait to see what's going to happen . . . . We need a situation where people 10 years from now feel things are going so much better for them that they do not feel that anxious about political power."

David Steward, head of the government's Bureau for Information, said that attitude surveys of blacks already indicated a growing shift from concern for political change to concern for economic betterment.

Du Plessis acknowledged that the strategic shift is likely to be interpreted by foreign advocates of sanctions as a stalling tactic, with political reform seen as being on the back burner. But, he said, "So what? . . . We are not going to be dictated {to} by the world as to what we should do."

Colin Eglin, leader of the liberal Progressive Federal Party, said that while he welcomes economic reform, the government's priorities are askew.

"Black political rights is the crunch issue in South Africa. While other reforms are important, the denial of political rights lies at the root of polarization and violence," Eglin said.

Achieving the social and economic improvements for blacks envisioned by the government will cost billions of dollars, senior Cabinet officials estimated. Moreover, that expenditure will come at a time when the government is trying to pay off its debt with an absence of foreign capital because of international economic sanctions.

To finance both the debt repayment and the cost of the "new economic dispensation," Botha announced a program of new fiscal discipline and plans to pay off the debt and release more than $30 billion into the economy by privatizing large parts of state-owned industry.

Botha pledged that revenue from the privatization -- a radical departure from the Afrikaner socialism adopted when the ruling National Party came to power in 1948 -- will go directly into programs such as home ownership and the creation of job opportunities for blacks.

While white unemployment is less than 2 percent, estimates for the black jobless rate run as high as 40 percent. The average monthly household income for blacks is $175, compared to about $1,000 for whites.

What is becoming known as "Bothanomics" -- and is being compared to the fiscal policies of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- coincides with South Africa's recovery from the steepest economic slide of its history.

Before the onset of political turmoil that raged in black townships in 1984 and 1985, South Africa met its balance-of-payments deficits with a steady inflow of foreign capital, much of it invested in gold mining.

With the imposition of sanctions, foreign investment dried up and overseas banks began withdrawing credit. Almost overnight, South Africa was transformed from a capital-importing economy to a capital-exporting one.

Rather than meet the drain by printing more money, the government increased exports. In the years 1985-87, South Africa lost $10 billion in capital, including $5 billion to repay debt.

"By nature, people choose the soft option when they have a balance-of-payments crisis. They borrow. We didn't have a soft option, because of sanctions, so we had to do it the right way," said Reserve Bank governor Gerhard de Kock. "It will go down in history as one of the most remarkable balance-of-payments adjustments ever."

The result was a plunge in the annual growth rate of the gross national product from about 5 percent to minus 1.5 percent, a collapse of the value of the rand and an evaporation of investor confidence. Unemployment and inflation rose, and the average per capita income declined by 1.5 percent in three years.

Recently, however, the economy has begun to show signs of recovery. Inflation fell from an annual rate of 20.8 percent in January 1986 to 14.7 percent last December. The growth in GNP climbed to 2.5 percent last year and is expected to reach 3 percent in 1988. South Africa has a $3 billion balance-of-payments surplus, and the rand has climbed in value to 50 U.S. cents.

"We're not going to shatter growth records. We're not going to be a South Korea or Taiwan. But we are improving," said de Kock, who is widely viewed as South Africa's most influential economic policy maker.

With the exception of the coal industry, which laid off 10,000 black workers because of reduced exports, the effect of trade sanctions has been negligible, de Kock said, and this has led to a resurgence of local investor confidence. That confidence, he said, does not mean that South Africa's political problems have disappeared, but that "perceptions of the situation have become more realistic.

"People know that there's not going to be a revolution. We know that sanctions haven't brought us to our knees. There's a renewal of confidence in the future," de Kock said. "Things are going so well that I'm beginning to worry that we might have to slow down the economy."

It is against this bankground of euphoria and pride that South Africa's economic policy makers feel less pressure to rush into political reforms.

"In the next 10 years, unless we have an economic upswing to make it possible to advance reform, we won't be able to solve our political problems. I'm for economic reform before political reform," said du Plessis. He said he got that point of view across at recent meetings of Botha's Economic Advisory Council.

When reminded that Afrikaners won political power in 1948 and then used it to gain economic power by creating state industries and patronage after generations of deprivation under English-speaking domination, du Plessis denied that the situations were analogous.

Blacks are more proportionally represented in the civil service and public sector, and what Afrikaners achieved in business they did "absolutely on merit," he said.