"A little more than a year ago whites were saying they'd leave the country if Robert Mugabe became prime minister. Now they're saying they'll go" if he goes.

The remark by Dave Kauffman, one of the thousands of whites waiting to determine their future in one-year-old Zimbabwe, was only half in jest.

For years, as the white-minority government of Rhodesia fought against black rule after its illegal break with Britain in 1965, whites constantly talked about leaving.

Their bark was usually louder than their bite. In the first years after the break, there was, in fact, an immigration boom that raised the white population to a peak of about 270,000 in the early 1970s. It dropped to about 200,000 by the time of independence last April as the seven-year guerrilla war eroded security and confidence.

Within the last year a record 20,000 whites have "gapped it" -- Zimbabwean slang for leaving the country -- or a total of 10 percent of the white population. A more meaningful way to look at the figures is to note that 90 percent have remained, despite all the dire predictions.

Mugabe has said frequently that he wants the whites to stay if they are not racist. An exodus rate of about 1,500 to 2,000 a month is probably acceptable to the government, and the likelihood is that Zimbabwe's white population will level off at 150,000 or less. It would still be the largest white population in black-ruled Africa.

Many whites admit that before last year's election they expected to flee in the event of a Mugabe victory. Most were stunned by his landslide win after listening to years of propaganda proclaiming he was "a godless Marxist." Now, many are pleasantly surprised at how well things have gone in the first year of rule by the country's black majority of 7 million.

There have been problems, mainly as an aftermath of the war. Thousands of weapons have been stashed in the countryside. About 20 whites have been killed, mainly by renegade former guerrillas, and many more blacks have been killed in similar violence, whith Mugabe has been hard-pressed to quell.

For both races, the fears of civil war or a breakdown in security are real, although they seem to have diminished since the government took firm action two months ago against tribal violence.

Many of the problems, however, are psychological, resulting form years of limited white contact with blacks except those in a subservient position.

Black rule seems to have done little to diminish white racism. Any inefficency or breakdown in services is invariably blamed on "them." A common remark, often repeated in front of Africans, is: "It takes two (or three or four) blacks to do the job of one white."

Many whites continue to use an endless stream of pejoratives in describing blacks. The other day a dental assistant described despairingly how she tried to be understanding of "houts" -- Afrikaans slang for blacks, roughly meaning blockhead.

After a rugby game, young children were heard chanting their own definition of what the letters of Zimbabwe stood for. They said it meant "zero intelligence mainly because all the best whites are emigrating."

"We had no philosophy except straight-out selfishness and prejudice," said Garfield Todd, the country's last liberal prime minister in the 1950s. He was later imprisoned and then detained for four years on his farm in the southwest by prime minister Ian Smith's government.

"Smith was saying and doing what whites in their hearts really wanted" when he stood fast against black rule, Todd said in an interview.

Whites often do not accept that there are bound to be problems caused by the lack of equal opportunity in the past in such fields as education and technical training.

"Many whites assume that things won't change much," said Roger Riddell, who was barred from the country by the Smith government and now heads a Mugabe-appointed commisison of inquiry on incomes, prices and conditions of service.

They seldom recognize that if Mugabe does not move rapidly, he will have difficulty retaining power because he must meet black aspirations.

Some do see the need for rapid advancement of blacks. "We've got to keep reminding ourselves that is now Africa. We've moved," said David Pallant, an assistant town clerk in Salisbury.

On the surface, however, the good life of the Europeans (as the whites prefer to call themselves) has continued unabated. Servants abound. Milk, juice and bread deliveries are made every morning in white neighborhoods. Mail is delivered twice a day. With the lifting of economic sanctions there is no longer difficulty getting chlorine to keep the ubiquitous swimming pools sparkling in European suburbs.The Sunday newspaper, where blacks are now in charge, still runs a picture of a white "bride of the week."

More important, whites still control the levers of economic power as they dominate the private sector. They are learning that it is possible to relinquish political power but maintain authority in the economic field.

Todd, relaxing at his scenic farm near Shabani, said: "Whites have had a tremendously privileged position. It was easy to get to the top in such a small group. People are so used to privilege. They've never known anything different."

"It's amazing," he added, "how comparatively pleasant things can be for whites, considering what we've done to the blacks."

For many Europeans the crucial tests will be the maintenance of what they regard as high standards of education and health care. There are bound to be strains with the services being extended to so many more people.

A $1,500 limit on the amount an emigrant can take out of the country has undoubetly kept many here who feel that their children will have a better future elsewhere.

Pallant's 16-year-old son Dean said, "I don't think there's a place for me here. In 30 years I don't think there will be many whites here from my generation."

One of the biggest furors occurred in January when the new black mayor of Gwelo, a city about 150 miles southwest of Salisbury, closed down a predominantly white theater club that was using a municipal building. The mayor, Patrick Kombayi, was angered by the refusal of the club to serve him a drink at the bar.

Members maintained that their license did not allow a visitor to be served a drink, but a white municipal official acknowledged that the club had handled the matter badly. "They just should have said, 'be my guest.'"

Kombayi, who seems to revel in baiting whites and reportedly likes being the subject of their irate letters to the editor, has had several other run-ins with those who were formerly in control. Many of the senior white officials in the city have resigned and the mayor is seeking to recruit employes in Britain.

"I've had a gutfull," one veteran administrator said. Asking that his name be withheld, he added, "they make it so unpleasant they don't have to force you to leave. You get the message."

He thought the municipal administration in the city of 130,000 population (including 11,000 whites) would "fall into ashes" within a year. He acknowledged the problems, however. "They have an impossible job," he said. "They've got to match the aspirations of the masses for jobs and services . . . with the need for good administration."

The two, he added, "will never match."