World: `Fed-ups' flee an uncertain future

As South Africa's election nears, Alex Duval Smith meets the `chicken run' whites - and blacks - who dream of a new life elsewhere
IT HAS been called "white flight", the "chicken run" and the "brain drain". But John Gambarana assured last week's crop of would-be emigrants - about 50 people gathered in a suburban auditorium - that there was no stigma attached to leaving South Africa for good.

"We all know the reason we want to leave," said Mr Gambarana, rep of a company called International Immigration Alliance. The omission of the word "crime" - psychosis of most whites, but also a hot issue in next week's election - heightened the complicity between the visa salesman and his audience. All were under 40, including some mothers and babies, and two couples were black. Collectively, they have become known as the gatvol, an Afrikaans word meaning "fed-up".

In the 2 June elections - in which the African National Congress may get an increased majority - the "gatvol vote" is being targeted by the Democratic Party, home of those who consider themselves part of a uniquely South African phenomenon, the privileged but excluded.

In all probability, the potential emigrants in the auditorium in Sandton shopping mall, north of Johannesburg, will not vote. They are among thousands of South Africans who leave the country every year for a future as far away as possible. Favoured destinations are Canada, the US, New Zealand, Australia and the UK.

It costs at least 25,000 rand (pounds 2,500) to "relocate" - Mr Gambarana's favoured word - which explains, in part, why most of the emigrants are white, educated and high-earning. President Mandela has several times begged them to stay. "We must stop this brain drain. They have a role to play here," he said in the first of many appeals in 1996. "To think that you can just push whites aside is fatal. It is suicide." Last week, in a farewell television interview, he went out of his way to praise whites, saying they had behaved "beyond expectation" in making the new South Africa.

But to thousands of whites who grew up in a cocoon of privilege, isolated from blacks and brainwashed into believing the majority of the population was by nature lazy and stupid, staying is as good as suicide. They point to the high crime rate and concerns about the economy, education and corruption.

"There is no future for us here," said Jutta Swanepoel, a travel agent, aged 32 and five months pregnant. "We are going to Canada as soon as the baby is born. My parents came here from Austria, so I'm only doing the same thing a generation later." She and her husband Pieter do not have jobs to go to, but "we are prepared to do anything". In his presentation, Mr Gambarana is at pains to point out that Vancouver and Perth are just like Cape Town, and New Zealand has a magazine called Afrikaanz.

Because of the emigrants' trepidation - and their desire to evade laws that limit the wealth they can export - reliable figures are not available for the number of people who have left since the first multi-race elections, five years ago. The Institute of Race Relations, which has charted social trends for years, notes that while the South African government recorded 1,767 emigrants to Australia in 1996, the Australian government reported receiving 3,200 immigrants from South Africa that year. The US says it issued 1,205 immigrant visas to South Africans in 1997; South Africa says about 700 people went to the US. The British High Commission says more people emigrated to the UK in the first five months of this year than throughout 1998.

Many of the emigrants at some stage pass through the "seminars" of companies such as Mr Gambarana's. Every week, half a page of the local Sunday Times is crammed with their ads: "Emigrate to Australia", or "Points drop by 5", indicating a temporary easing of immigration criteria.

After his 90-minute presentation, Mr Gambarana invites the would-be emigrants to individual hour-long consultations, costing R350. The process is rather reminiscent of timeshare sales, but he says that 3,500 people - his clientele over five years - cannot be wrong.

And just in case anyone should forget that South Africa, for all its beauty and sun, is the crime capital of the world, he throws in a story about the time it takes for an abandoned suitcase to be stolen in London, Toronto and New York. The answers are: four minutes in London, one minute 14 seconds in Toronto and 12 seconds in New York. "In Jo'burg you get hijacked on the way to the airport," he said. But the crime stories do not impress everyone. Sandy and Brian Semake, both 28, are one of the black couples in the audience. "We have always lived with crime," said Sandy. "It can happen anywhere. You just have to take a few precautions like removing your radio from the car and closing the windows.

"For us, the reason to go abroad is the adventure. We are young and energetic, and it sounds like the UK is a fun place to be at the moment. But we would definitely come back for our retirement - before the arthritis sets in."

The extent of the South African brain drain is hard to measure, since it includes both adventure seekers and the gatvol. A survey last year said 78 per cent of whites had considered emigrating, but against this is the reality that South Africans were barred from much foreign travel during the apartheid years. Travel and working abroad have novelty value.

But John Chapman, whose upmarket ACN Consultants offers a full service, including finding housing and schools in adopted countries, said: "The interest base is definitely broadening, though the number of applications from blacks is still very small. Ninety per cent of South Africans are going to Australia. They cite crime, declining education standards and affirmative action. I am seeing people in their twenties, just out of university, who want to emigrate to avoid being marginalised."

There was also increasing interest from Afrikaner farmers, many of whom were going to New Zealand. "If the South African government wants to reverse the trend - or attract a few skilled immigrants of its own," said Mr Chapman, "it needs to learn from countries like Australia and New Zealand, and provide incentives to businesses."