She stood in line at the Ministry of Immigration, holding her British passport. She was English by heritage, South African by birth but raised here in the old British colony of Rhodesia. Now, five years after independence, she and others with joint citizenship were being told to choose one country or another. She had chosen to become a citizen of Zimbabwe.

Down in South Africa, the woman's choice would almost certainly be greeted with consternation. There, Zimbabwe is discussed with contempt. It is supposed to be a nation on the slide, its economy disintegrating, rampant (black) cronyism replacing storied (white) efficiency, the political situation for whites ever worsening -- and all because a white minority government has been replaced with a black majority one. If Zimbabwe is the future, many South African whites say, they'll stick with the present -- as uncertain as it may be.

But if Zimbabwe is the future, then South Africans have constructed a bogeyman with which to rationalize the denial of political rights to blacks. The first thing that strikes you here is the total lack of racial tension. After being in South Africa, it's almost startling to see neighborhoods that are both black and white, white children playing with blacks in schoolyards and white women pushing baby carriages down streets clogged with black pedestrians. The country's 110,000 whites are certainly outnumbered by 8 million blacks, but -- on the street at least -- the statistic is irrelevant.

In fact, so profoundly wrong were all the warnings that independence would bring a racial blood bath that whites who once fled are now trickling back. A woman at immigration said she knew of people who had returned from South Africa, and so did a local journalist. Statistics are hard to come by, but one diplomat here said a check with local moving companies and real-estate agents indicated an influx of whites.

You can hardly blame them. The weather this time of year is a sin -- blue skies, low humidity, moderate temperatures. There is little traffic, the people are courteous and anyone of any means (and that means most whites), can enjoy a life style that elsewhere is limited to rock stars, baseball players and institutional bankers. The woman at immigration, after announcing herself to be of "modest" income, admitted to several servants (cook, gardener and some part-timers) a pool and enough land to require the attention of the aforementioned gardener. The only drug kids take is for malaria -- and there is no radio or television to speak of. Things are so laid-back here that, according to one resident, pilots used to announce on landing, "Welcome to Rhodesia. Set your watches back 25 years." The country's name has changed, but the pace is about the same.

Still, critical South Africans have something of a point. Since independence, Zimbabwe's economy has worsened and the country seems headed for one-party rule. There have been occasional detentions of both whites and blacks. As for the media, it is a bulletin board for the government. It's quickly apparent that anyone given the title "comrade" can do no wrong.

About the best you can say is that the state does not discriminate racially in its abuse of power, and, for the most part, is using emergency legislation passed by the old white government. Anyway, whatever the situation in Zimbabwe, it is far better for whites and blacks than it is in South Africa for dissidents of either race.

Nothing in life is so neat that it permits an exact comparison of one country with another. South Africa and Zimbabwe are two different nations. A bitter seven-year war of independence was fought here, but it may have been nothing but a lounge act for the show threatening South Africa. Still, the woman at immigration speaks volumes about what is possible -- and suggests a solution to South Africa's problem. Those there who ominously say Zimbabwe is the future ought to talk to her. She's seen it, and for her it works.