* Reserve bank to hold repo rate at 7.00 pct in July 20 meeting
* Inflation to average 5.4 pct in 2017, 5.3 pct in 2018
* reuters://realtime/verb=Open/url=cpurl://apps.cp./Apps/econ-polls?RIC=ZAGDPQP GDP forecasts
* reuters://realtime/verb=Open/url=cpurl://apps.cp./Apps/cb-polls?RIC=ZAREPO%3DECI Repo predictions
JOHANNESBURG, July 18 (Reuters) - South Africa's Reserve Bank is expected to leave interest rates unchanged at its July 20 meeting, according to a Reuters poll released on Monday, but economists expect a dovish statement as the Bank gets closer to its easing cycle.
Twenty-four of 27 economists said the Reserve Bank will hold rates at 7.00 percent on Thursday. Two predicted a 25-basis- point cut and one expects the repo rate to be cut by half a percent.
Economic growth in South Africa will be weaker this year after the country slipped into recession in the first quarter, and with inflation easing an interest rate cut is expected in the first quarter of next year.
"While our consumer price index view indicates that the SARB has room to ease rates from as early as next week, it will first look to change its inflation rates narrative before pulling the trigger," said Jeffrey Schultz, an economist at BNP Paribas.
Schultz said at least two members of the Monetary Policy Committee could vote in favor of a 25-basis-point cut next Thursday. At its May meeting, only one of the six committee members voted for a cut.
"This should send a signal that September is a `live' meeting," he said.
At 5.4 percent in May, inflation has been slowing after a drought last year and will probably average 5.4 percent this year and 5.3 percent next year.
The rand is expected to end this year around 13.60 per dollar. It is currently at 12.96 with slower rate increases now expected in the United States.
Wall Street's top banks brought forward expectations for when the Federal Reserve will begin reducing its $4.5 trillion bond portfolio to as early as September. They see balance sheet reduction as more of a priority than another rate rise.
South Africa's economy is expected to expand 0.7 percent in 2017 and 1.2 percent the following year, after contracting 0.7 percent in the first quarter.
South Africa's finance minister has laid out a 14-point program on Thursday to lift the economy out of recession. It includes the sale of non-core assets and partial privatization of state-owned companies.
(For other stories from the global poll:) (Editing by Larry King)