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Whites in Zimbabwe: Is there a future?

Whites are leaving black-ruled Zimbabwe in record numbers.

Ironically though, they are better off now than when they were living as Rhodesians under the minority rule of Prime Minister Ian Smith. Company profits are up 50 percent since independence. Last year farmers enjoyed one of their best years ever. And the war and the military call-up that disrupted family life are over.

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So why the exodus? Future uncertainty, not present insecurity, explains why whites are abandoning Zimbabwe in droves.

Figures released in Salisbury recently show that a record 20,500 people, nearly all of them believed to be whites, emigrated from Zimbabwe last year. This was 20 percent more than in 1980, and if the figures quoted by furniture removal companies are any guide, the exodus will get worse in the first half of 1982 before it starts to run out of steam.

The white population of Zimbabwe topped 270,000 in the mid-70s but is now believed to be about 180,000.

Many whites argue that they are leaving - or considering emigration--because of the future and not the present. Fears for the future center on job prospects, health, and education, especially the latter.

For many whites in the public service, the change of government two years ago meant an end to prospects for professional advancement. Accordingly, these people have either moved across into the private sector--which has been strongly accused by government of ''poaching skills''--or they have voted with their feet for a new life in South Africa, Australia, Europe, or even the United States.

Whites with young families are concerned about the future of education. Here again, their fears center on what may happen rather than on what has happened and is happening. To date there has been little change in educational standards, but many parents fear that the high educational standards enjoyed in the past by the white minority--at the expense of the majority--must fall. One reaction is to send children to expensive private schools. The other is to emigrate.

For the farmers the main worry is essentially economic. Here, too, it is the future rather than the present that is on their minds. The past year was one of the best the farmers have ever had, but labor management has become more difficult with the advent of workers' committees and sharply higher minimum wages, allied with regulations to prevent retrenchment.

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Squatting is a key problem in some areas,and farmers are very concerned at the government's plan to resettle 165,000 families over the next three years. This, they say, must mean substantial purchases of what is currently white-owned commercial farm land. One estimate is that 9 million hectares will be necessary to resettle these numbers and, at present much of the previously unused and underutilized land has been absorbed so that the resettlement program will make inroads into the 14 million hectares of white-owned land.

Undoubtedly, too, white morale has suffered from poor political leadership. Ian Smith's Republican Front (RF) has achieved - partly through its own lack of foresight --the image of a conservative group opposing change for opposition's sake. Equally, those who have left his party--first the leader of the Democratic Party, Andre Holland, and recently another nine members of Parliament decided to quit the party and sit as independents--have cut a poor figure.

Mr. Holland's party has been decisively defeated in parliamentary by-elections, while the nine independents have created the widespread impression that they deserted the RF not for any reasons of policy but because they would find it easier to represent their constituents as independents. Indeed, the latest deserters have had little to say in open criticism of Mr. Smith and have angered many white moderates who feel that at this stage of its history Zimbabwe needs a new breed of white politician, not the failed and discredited faces of the past merely reappearing in what they hope is more palatable packaging.

Increasingly whites are coming around to the view that they have little if any political role to play. Ironically, it is this view that sparks the greatest despondency in some minds. Not because they want to play an active role, but because--and this is particularly true of the business community and of farmers--they fear that some of the economic policies being espoused by the government will put Zimbabwe into the same category as countries such as Tanzania, Zambia, and even Kenya, whose economic worries have escalated alarmingly in recent years.

Yet here again, it is fears for the future rather than concern over what has already happened that is dominant. To date economic policy has been pragmatic. The main criticism has been that the Mugabe government has failed to take some of the politically unpopular, but very necessary, measures needed to tide the economy over what promises to be a difficult year. Slower growth in government spending, cuts in food subsidies, some relaxation in price controls to encourage investment, a softer line of multinational investment--these are the signs the business community is hoping to see.

For the whites, transition has become more difficult as words have been translated into deeds. Many diehards have left, and it is only realistic to expect many more to go in the next year. But for the hard core--150,000 or rather less--the next two years will be crucial as government's many pronouncements are transformed into concrete policies. It is not a crisis situation at this stage. It is the policies and their implementation over the next 24 months that will determine whether the white population sinks to 100,000 or levels off close to 150,000.

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