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Zimbabwe whites: most try to find niche under black rule

The white farmer slid down in the back seat of his car, hiding his face in shadow. He was off to visit his daughter, who had emigrated to South Africa, but he didn't want the cluster of black Africans at the roadside to notice his departure.

''They'll think I've gone and swarm all over my farm,'' he said. ''I'd never get them off.''

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The farmer's comments echo two now commonplace facets of life in post-independence Zimbabwe: the flow of whites out of a country whose future will clearly be charted by blacks, and movement of landless peasants onto white-owned farmland.

Many white Zimbabweans - discouraged by their future prospects - have left the country by just driving away. Because they are limited to taking only about emigrating whites often avoid official exit procedures. They just go on holiday and never come back.

Such sneak-aways make emigration figures hard to calculate, but latest estimates show that, of about 220,000 whites in Zimbabwe at independence in 1980 , about 180,000 remain today.

What seems to unsettle the whites are fears that health services will decline and that schools will teach an ''African syllabus.'' They also object to a personal income tax of more than 50 percent, a freeze on salaries over 20,000 Zimbabwean dollars (about $26,000 US), and shortages of cooking oil, rice, and sugar.

Most of all, many whites feel they have no voice in the new Zimbabwe, and their resentment smolders, flaming up at each new government regulation that affects them.

The latest of these new regulations is ''apprentice bonding.'' According to the Ministry of Manpower Planning and Development, anyone trained as an apprentice in a public or private-sector job must agree to stay in Zimbabwe for a period equal to the length of training. Ten percent of the apprentice's salary will be deducted, then returned with interest when term of service is completed. If an apprentice leaves the country on holiday, he must post a bond before going.

The apprentice-bonding regulation is an attempt to stem the flow of skilled workers from the country. While older white farmers for the most part remain tied to their still-profitable land, younger skilled whites are leaving in greater numbers.

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Indeed, government figures show that whites in their 20s and 30s have emigrated at about five times the rate of those in their 50s. Former Deputy Manpower Minister Cephas Msipa says the loss hits hard in the mechanical, motor, electrical, construction, and printing trades. All those trades now have apprentice training programs.

''Everyone hates apprentice bonding,'' said Nigel Saunders bitterly, as he kicked the glowing logs of a campfire near Wankie. A former Rhodesian Army soldier in his early 20s, he quit his job as a park ranger but rules out technical school because he'd be ''stuck here for four years after it was over.'' He restlessly waits for the day he can leave.

Roger Riddell, a white economist for the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries , calls apprentice bonding ''absolutely right for the long term.'' He adds, however, that ''it might lead to short-term disruptions, which the country can't afford.''

Whites in Zimbabwe make up only 2 percent of its population of 7.5 million, but at independence they constituted more than two-thirds of the country's skilled work force.

But as Mr. Riddell points out, Zimbabwe averaged an economic growth rate of more than 10 percent in its first two years of independence. ''That's the highest on record, so the shortage can't be that severe.''

One of the reasons whites did not leave at a faster pace, analysts say, is that whites seem genuinely to admire Prime Minister Robert Mugabe who, before his election, they had regarded as a ''Marxist terrorist.''

''The whites were packing their bags as they watched his victory speech on TV ,'' said United States Ambassador Robert Keeley. But Mr. Mugabe managed to convince them that he was committed a nonracial society.

So far the prime minister has remained true to his promise not to confiscate white property. At this time, policy calls for land to be converted to black use on a willing-seller,willing-buyer basis. What's more, he has appointed two whites as ministers in his Cabinet, and two as deputy ministers.

Yet if many of the whites trust Mugabe, they scorn many of the men around him. Dinner conversations often include embellished rumors of government corruption, presented as fact, and tales of official incompetence.

Some whites who have not physically left Zimbabwe seem to have quit psychologically. A white by-election in March this year drew only 29 percent of eligible voters. One woman, the wife of a farmer, said, ''In my heart I remain Rhodesian.''

It was this attitude that recently led Jonas Christian Andersen and eight other MPs to split from Ian Smith's Republican Front Party, the bulwark of former white supremacy, to become independents. That dropped the RF bloc to 11 from it earlier 20.

''The RF and its supporters cling to the past,'' Mr. Andersen said recently. ''But whites here must recognize the discrimination that existed. Otherwise, they'll never understand the government decisions that flow from an attempt to change it.''

Yet if the independents' approach is different, their stands on issues remain similar. They opposed apprentice bonding, for instance, not on categorical grounds, as the RF did, but because it could ''precipitate apprentices leaving who otherwise wouldn't do so.''

It is certainly true, however, that many whites in Zimbabwe remain startlingly blind to racial discrimination. An elderly woman, immediately after telling friends of her commitment to Christian values, turned to a visitor and said, ''Isn't it terrible the way Africans are taking over?''

A white farmer, asked if the poverty of his workers caused him any moral qualms, answered, ''The Africans have no ambition. They like living that way.''

On the surface, white privilege in Zimbabwe remains relatively intact. With their sprawling homes, manicured lawns, and sparkling swimming pools, whites here maintain a standard of living that would be hard to match in any Western country. A few blacks may have joined the elite recently, but according to Bernard Chidzero, minister of economic planning and development, average white income in the cities is still 10 times greater than that of blacks, and 100 times greater in the rural areas.

Still, there are hopeful signs. One daughter of the white farmer who fears that blacks will invade his land, recently resettled in Zimbabwe after a year in England.

''I feel so immersed in this Rhodesian culture,'' she said, ''but I know I have to get over it. I want to break the racism inside myself, and I feel I should contribute at least that much.''

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