Edgy Whites Still Fleeing S. Africa

AT the height of South Africa's "chicken run," as the white exodus during apartheid's last days was called, Colin Buxton was convinced that the only way for whites to bring down the white-run government was to stay.

When change came with the first all-race elections in April 1994, he reveled in the euphoria that swept the country.

But now the fourth-generation South African, a university professor, worries his children may not get jobs under black-dominated rule. He and his family are packing for Tasmania, Australia.

In 1994, fearing an eruption of racial violence after the elections, 10,000 whites fled South Africa. So far this year - even with relative peace - 6,000 whites have left, reflecting a continuing unease among the country's 5.4 million whites.

Liberals like Mr. Buxton, as well as apartheid supporters, are leaving. Many say they are seen as either stepping stones or roadblocks to black progress.

"[Increasing] crime and affirmative action are causing mega-angst among the nervous white middle classes," says Steven Friedman of the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg.

"I am 100 percent for change," Buxton says. "We have to play catch-up for the way in which blacks have been disadvantaged for so long. But I find it impossible to accept that, just for the sake of change, whites with expertise are being replaced by blacks who are being pushed up into high positions without the merits."

Buxton already has seen what he says is the beginning of a permanent blight. At his daughter's school, class sizes have almost doubled as more and more black children seek a "white education" in formerly white schools. Under new legislation, no child can be turned away from a public school.

At the University of Rhodes in Grahamstown, in the Cape Province, where Buxton heads the ichthyology department, black students who now make up roughly a third of the student body are demanding the university double the intake of blacks next year, no matter what their qualifications.

"Less than 3 percent of black students passed this year, so what are we going to have - a university full of people who can't get degrees? Or are we going to have to lower standards?" Buxton asks.

Even in this sedate university town, he has seen crime and overwhelming poverty.

"I understand that we are going to have to take a dip, and we are going to continue to undergo major social upheaval in our lifetime," Buxton says. "But the way to address the imbalances is to attract foreign investment. And it's being scared off because our [black] workers demand too-high salaries and are prone to strike."

"We see whites not being able to get good jobs. We see what's happening in Natal [a province where more than 100 people died in violent clashes in recent days], and we think we are sitting on a time bomb. We see how our friends and neighbors are like prisoners in their own homes because of the crime rate.

"I know I can give my children a better chance in a more sane society, and I'm going to have to take that chance. Our children shouldn't have to suffer for what past governments have done to their country."

Buxton is not alone. He says some of his colleagues have said that they wished that they could leave, too. Though the majority of whites seem to be delighted at the smooth transition to black majority rule and the lack of retribution from blacks, English-speaking whites, which make up the middle class, are still preoccupied with the uncertainty of their future.

Less rooted in Africa than Afrikaners, the Dutch descendants who made South Africa their home more than 300 years ago, English South Africans (who make up less than half the white population) have held on to their mainly British passports, just in case.

Some try to laugh off the disturbingly high crime rates by euphemistically calling break-ins "affirmative shopping."

One fear that has become the stuff of urban legend is of black maids booting employers out of their own mansions.

The whites who leave make up the so-called "brain drain." They take their skills to other shores: Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

Some black leaders would dismiss Buxton and other whites as expendable casualties on the road toward black advancement.

But the government is aware of the need to keep skilled white professionals in the country while uplifting blacks - who were poorly educated under apartheid - to a position where they are able to effectively take over the reins of big business and professional services.

Visiting Australia earlier this year, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki implored white South Africans who had emigrated there to come back and help build the country.

But with black unemployment hovering around 45 percent, it clearly will not be a government priority to make sure the white brain drain does not accelerate. Commentators say lifting up blacks must remain central to the policies of the African National Congress if it is to avoid a disgruntled electorate.

Still, the majority of whites will never have anywhere else to go. The mainly Afrikaner working class - long protected by the former National Party government - will undoubtedly suffer most from affirmative-action policies. Politically leaderless, they are already becoming marginalized.

Yet there are whites who are encouraged by these extraordinary times. While concerned about dropping standards in education and other spheres, art academic Colin Richards, who, like Buxton, has a young child, is staying put.

"Yes, it is daunting, and we're often appalled by what is happening around us. [But] for us, the positives far outweigh the negatives," Professor Richards says. "I feel alive and stimulated here in a way that I don't think is possible elsewhere.

"In the past when white South African culture was demonized, we would hide behind all kinds of other European identities.

"Today we are respected all over for being South Africans. We are now undergoing a profound part of living through history, and I would not miss it for all the world," he says.

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