Official figures show that South Africa's economy, the largest on the African continent, slipped into recession in the first quarter of 2009 as gross domestic product contracted by 6.4% in the first quarter compared with the last quarter of 2008.

The economy had contracted by 1.8% in the last quarter of 2008. The two consecutive quarterly contractions put South Africa in its first recession in 17 years.

The showing was far worse than market expectations of a 3.9% drop but was in line with the global economic downturn.

The main drags on the country's economy were manufacturing, down 3.3 percentage points, and mining, down 1.7 percentage points, according to Statistics SA.

Yesterday, the mining industry said South Africa's gold production dropped 4.8% year-on-year in the three months to March. The drop came on the back of dramatically lower gold production last year, when output hit the lowest level since 1922, according to the Chamber of Mines.

The grim figures add to pressure on new President Jacob Zuma, who took office just two weeks ago promising to create jobs and fight poverty.

South Africa's monetary policymakers will announce a decision on interest rates on Thursday, following Wednesday's publication of inflation data. The Reserve Bank this year has started meeting every month, rather than every other, to react more quickly to the worsening economic climate.

Policymakers have slashed the benchmark rate at every meeting since December to the current level of 8.5%, and are expected to make a new cut this week, possibly by another full point.