For nearly five years, Methodist minister R.G. Forrest has watched his flock dwindle as members of his predominantly white congregation in a northern suburb of this capital city have emigrated from Africa's youngest nation.

At first, Forrest encouraged them to stay, arguing that Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's stated policy of racial reconciliation should be given an opportunity to work. And for a while, most remained. After an initial exodus of those too afraid to give peace a chance, members hung on, biding their time and weighing the future.

But during the past two years, Forrest said, the exodus has resumed. By now, he calculated, 93 of the congregation's 150 original families have departed. And now Forrest is departing for a new pulpit in England, leaving behind the land where he was born and has spent all of his 50 years. His reasons are similar to those of his flock: insufficient educational opportunities for his children, creeping economic hardships and, perhaps most of all, fear for the future.

It has been nearly five years since Mugabe took power after a landslide electoral victory that ended nearly 90 years of white-minority rule in the former British colony of Rhodesia. The ex-guerrilla leader stunned his opponents by articulating a policy of reconciliation to heal wounds and assuage white fears. In many ways that policy has been an extraordinary success, allowing former bitter enemies to work together and contradicting the dire predictions of race war and massive white stampede that many made when Mugabe took office.

But Zimbabwe's experiment in multiracial harmony remains at the same time tentative and fragile. Racial animosity surfaces periodically, fed by memories of the bitter, seven-year independence war and by the highly visible economic and social privileges that the small but significant white minority still enjoys. At the same time, the erosion of those privileges has been one of several factors pushing whites to leave.

"Until independence, white privileges were in a real sense guaranteed or at least fortified by the entire system," said Marshall W. Murphree, a University of Zimbabwe sociologist. "The removal of those protections -- in job opportunities, education, tax policies -- has left the whites vulnerable and nervous."

No one knows the precise size of the white exodus. The government concedes that official numbers are inaccurate because many departing whites conceal their intention to emigrate. But estimates by analysts and western diplomats are that 15,000 to 20,000 whites leave each year and that the total white population is rapidly shrinking to about 100,000 -- less than half what it was at independence and less than 2 percent of Zimbabwe's more than 8 million people.

The periodic arrests of white politicians and businessmen accused of conspiring with white-ruled South Africa against the Mugabe government have tapered off, and whites generally are no longer viewed as a political threat to black rule. But the steady deterioration of Zimbabwe's economy has continued to strain relations as black leaders attempt to pin at least part of the blame on the white-dominated business community.

When Zimbabwe faced shortages of corn meal and wheat flour last year, Mugabe accused white grain millers of conspiring to "suck the wealth of the country and destroy the government." When white hotel owners complained of a sharp decline in business and questioned government sponsorship of two new luxury hotels here, the prime minister denounced them as "despicable . . . scarecrows and saboteurs."

Early last year, the government announced the discovery in eastern Zimbabwe of mass graves of black guerrillas. The graves, allegedly used as a dumping ground for blacks executed during the war, soon became a new test of loyalty, with officials calling upon white Army veterans to come forward with information on similar sites. Few have done so.

In reopening the graves, the government also reopened old wounds. Few families, white or black, were spared the loss of relatives or neighbors during the fighting, in which more than 20,000 died. It is as if 600,000 Americans were killed in a war fought within the borders of the United States.

Cabinet Minister Maurice Nyagumbo spent nearly 15 years in jail for plotting against the white government of former prime minister Ian Smith. Deputy Prime Minister Simon Muzenda was imprisoned for seven years and lost a daughter killed in a Rhodesian raid on a refugee camp inside Mozambique in 1977. Mugabe spent nearly 11 years behind bars and was refused permission to attend the funeral of his only son.

"They were needlessly cruel," said Willie D. Musarurwa, now editor of the Harare Sunday Mail, who also spent 11 years in detention for preaching black rule. "It is something you can never forget."

Given the past, some racial animosity is not surprising. Three years ago, Eddison Zvobgo, a black, Harvard-trained Cabinet minister, slapped a white woman at a downtown intersection after a traffic accident in which she called him a "Kaffir," the local equivalent of "nigger." A few weeks ago, a deputy Cabinet minister had to be restrained on the floor of Parliament from striking former prime minister Smith, who is still a member, after Smith attempted to defend a fellow white politician who used the same racial slur.

More often, animosity is evident in countless daily confrontations in which whites can be heard dressing down black waiters, store clerks or servants. Because of their economic vulnerability, the blacks on the receiving end in these incidents often feel they dare not answer back. Many still address whites as "master" or "boss."

"Robert Mugabe may be prime minister, but the white man still controls your paycheck," said a black government official, summing up the blacks' dilemma here. "If he decides to fire you, there's not much Mugabe can do."

Mugabe conceded as much in a speech last year: "Those whites we defeated are still in control. They own the mines, the factories, commerce. They are the bosses in our own country."

Some of that is slowly changing. Where senior administrative positions in government were once the exclusive preserve of whites, more than 60 percent are now held by blacks, according to the state Public Service Commission.

Of the two dozen permanent secretaries, the government's top civil servant posts, all but two are black. Private companies are moving in the same direction, albeit at a slower pace, and Air Zimbabwe, the state-run airline, recently announced the hiring of its first two black pilots.

But the success of affirmative action has had a demoralizing impact on many whites, especially those of lower skills or training who see increased competition for their jobs and little chance of promotion. These same whites find it most difficult to emigrate, for lack of job opportunities.

Other factors compound white malaise. Many interpret the government's high-volume socialist rhetoric as a threat. They see official criticism of private medical practice and the predominantly white private schools as feeding the rapid deterioration of these services.

Above all, said sociologist Murphree, whites fear "their loss of control. . . . A new government, a new culture and a new set of imperatives is taking over, and it's only natural for those who identified with and belonged to the old system to be worried."

The result is often a tense atmosphere. When a postal clerk is surly in the United States or a telephone goes out of order, most Americans consider it regrettable but trivial. Similar incidents here are interpreted by many whites as further evidence that their beloved country is deteriorating uncontrollably.

Those who seek to leave often find they have no place to go. Both South Africa and Britain, the two most common destinations, are undergoing long-term economic slumps, and many whites consider the United States too expensive and too formidable. Those who leave soon become aware that Zimbabwe's year-round sunny weather, cheap, spacious housing and aristocratic life style are not possible elsewhere.

Draconian regulations designed by the Smith government to discourage white emigration make leaving even harder, for they ensure that those who go can take little or nothing with them. Legal emigrants are allowed to leave with only $750 in hard currency, one used car and a limited amount of used furniture and appliances per family. Those who leave with a stated intent to return can take as much as $700 in hard currency per family member but no possessions beyond what they can cram into a suitcase.

For many who plan to leave, life becomes a series of risky and illegal ventures designed to abet and cushion their departure. Businessmen with overseas customers or suppliers draw up fake invoices and make excess payments to build a supply of capital abroad. Others, risking long prison sentences, seek out sympathetic foreign visitors with hard currency and offer to change money at favorable black-market rates.

The psychological impact of all these factors is corrosive, according to Methodist minister Forrest. "People begin to feel claustrophobic -- almost as if they're enmeshed in a prison and there's no way out," he said. "Morale is at rock bottom. I go around visiting people, and they want to talk about nothing else except leaving."

Murphree predicts that the white population will level off at 70,000 to 60,000. Those who will remain, he says, will tend to be the most skilled and the most privileged and thus those who may find it easiest to make whatever continuing adjustments black rule may demand.