PRETORIA, South Africa -- The vicious rumor at the Afrikaans Boys High School earlier this year went like this: Upon the death of Nelson Mandela, an underground army organized by the black-led ruling political party would rise up and kill whites across South Africa in belated revenge for decades of apartheid oppression.
Among white students at this school that once educated the sons of apartheid-era presidents and prime minsters, the improbable scenario took on a name, Operation White Cleanup. "I think it's just a rumor," said Wian Prinsloo, 16, "but it shows how afraid people are."
That fear - of crime, affirmative action, lost privilege, a government deemed hostile - is one factor behind an exodus of whites to Australia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere. Since apartheid ended 13 years ago, the white population has fallen by a quarter, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations. That would give whites 8 percent of the population of 47 million, their lowest share in decades, and down from more than 10 percent a decade ago.
Wian, still in 11th grade, already wants to move overseas, too, despite a comfortable upper-middle-class life. "I just don't think we can survive here," he said. "It feels like the blacks in this country are trying to get us to leave."
He is part of the post-apartheid generation that has come of age since apartheid's demise - young people who are largely, though not entirely, free of the emotional baggage their parents carry. They are known as Mandela's Children for the jailed anti-apartheid hero who became South Africa's president in 1994.
Mandela, 89 and frail, has long dreamed of a "nonracial" society in which youth across the racial spectrum would help cement the tenuous bonds of equality. But if whites keep leaving, that dream could wither.
Although there appear to be no surveys focused on young whites, pessimism is hardly universal. Steffan van Heerden, also 16, is upbeat about the country. He and his family went to the U.S. in 1994 for work but are now happy to be back in South Africa - for good, they hope.
Another young white South African, 22-year-old John Botha, recently returned from America as well. Now working on a game farm, he falls in the middle: cautiously optimistic yet not sure he can build a life here.
Together, the trio reflect the varied views young whites have toward a land that whites have inhabited since the 1650s. Descendants of those first Dutch settlers feel thoroughly African. They call themselves Afrikaners and speak a unique tongue, Afrikaans. But many have left Africa.
At the moment, departing whites far exceed the trickle of returnees. The unknown - and unknowable - question is how these trends may shift as today's youngsters grow up and decide where and how to live.
Frans Cronje, who researched white emigration for the race relations institute, predicts that the current course may well continue. His analysis disputes official figures, suggesting that a smaller 14 percent drop in the white population occurred mostly in the early 1990s. Ominously, he says, many who have left lately are just in their 20s and 30s.
"We've created this rainbow nation, but a lot of that rainbow is running away," he said. "Fifty years in the future, South Africa's white population could be 2 or 3 percent of the national population. I'd be surprised if it was that much."
Government leaders rarely talk about the size of the white population. About the only time they do acknowledge it is in connection with the nation's skills shortage. Because apartheid left whites generally well-educated, those who leave often take valuable skills in engineering and other fields.
On the surface, it's hard to see why the Prinsloos would feel anything but content. They have a large home filled with nice things. Willem Prinsloo is a well-paid orthopedic surgeon; his wife, Riana, keeps the practice's books. Wian attends one of the best high schools around. His older brother Dirk, 20, studies at the University of Pretoria.
Their high standard of living mirrors the good fortunes of many whites. Their pessimism also mirrors white attitudes. Only 45 percent of whites feel positive about the country's future, according to a poll by TNS Research Surveys - well below the 75 percent of blacks who do.
A major factor is crime. South Africa's murder rate is eight times that of the U.S., with 50 killings a day. Most victims are poor and black, but violent crimes, including carjackings and home invasions, are common in largely white areas. In March, 70 percent of whites living in big cities told pollsters that crime had gotten worse.
Wian and his mother were held up at gunpoint in a hotel room while vacationing in Cape Town. In Pretoria, crime has hit close to home. A friend of Riana Prinsloo was shot to death last year, and this year the 23-year-old son of one of Willem Prinsloo's colleagues was murdered outside his home.
"You hear about these things all the time," said Wian.
The danger rules their lives, said his brother, Dirk: "You never go out alone. If we stay out late we try to go in a group, drive in the same car." Thanks to the electric fence and other security measures, "your house feels like a jail. I don't even know my neighbor's name."
For Wian, overlaying the safety concerns are worries about his job prospects after college.
Just 1 percent of college-educated whites under 35 are unemployed, compared with 10 percent of their black peers. But the government is pushing companies hard to hire more black workers and to bring blacks in as owners. This "Black Economic Empowerment" is the source of much bitterness among whites.
In that context, the bizarre rumor of a mass uprising against whites has given Wian a sense of foreboding. Though he figures it is an urban myth, he draws a disturbing conclusion: "It shows you black people can hate us enough to want to kill us like animals."
Not that he has much interaction with other races. His elite public high school is 98 percent white, and he does not have any close black friends. "I can stand them," he said, but "the cultural difference is too big."
Now the Prinsloos, with six generations behind them in South Africa, are looking to emigrate to Australia once Wian finishes high school. The parents worry that their homeland will deteriorate like Zimbabwe and other African countries amid corruption, crime and other woes.
"We all want to think South Africa might be the one big exception," Willem Prinsloo said.
"We all hope," Riana Prinsloo added.
"But," he went on, "there are no real positive signs that it won't go the way all those African countries went."
A couple of years ago, Steffan van Heerden's parents made a fateful decision. After 12 years in the U.S., the family of four moved back to Pretoria.
Their extended family was a big draw. So was the chance for Steffan and his sister, Grethe, now 13, to experience daily life in South Africa. Their parents wanted them to be able to decide later where they wanted to settle down.
Steffan's initial trepidation quickly vanished, and he is now happy to be back, as is Grethe. The racism bothers him, but he says most of his friends are not racist. One of his close friends is a black classmate named Sizo.
"I don't really see color," he said.
Nor does he find fault with affirmative action. Blacks "had it hard for a long time, since basically the beginning of South Africa until 1994. Now that they have the opportunity for jobs, I support it. But I don't think they should overdo it and completely take over. There should be a balance."
To an extent, his views may reflect an American upbringing; In Memphis, his two best friends were black. But his parents, Dawid and Natania, both 41, say they raised the kids to be "color-blind." They themselves opposed apartheid and left in 1994 only because of Dawid's job opportunities in the software industry, as the world again rolled out the welcome mat for white South Africans once seen as pariahs.
Since returning, the parents have found a booming economy, at least for the well-educated. They've had no trouble finding work - he's still in software, and she's an actress - and the whites they know seem to be successful.
"Everybody's living like kings in this country," Dawid van Heerden said. "Big houses, nice vehicles, steady jobs."
The crime rate bothers them, and they know that if the situation got really bad they could leave. But Natania says it helps to avoid being paranoid and to realize that crime, regrettably, is "part of the package" for now.
Steffan, meanwhile, sees a bright future for himself. After college, he may get a "boring, high-paying" job as an accountant while taking time off to pursue a passion for wild animals by working on a game farm near Kruger National Park.
He is confident that crime and inequality will ease as children of all races enjoy better education and expanded career paths. "In 20 years it won't be as bad as it is now; in 20 years things might have settled down."
'In my veins'
John Botha spent most of his life in Johannesburg before his father's career took the family in 2002 to the southeast Pennsylvania town of Lincoln University. This year, he moved back to the country of his birth to work at an animal rehabilitation game farm.
"South Africa is in my veins," he said. "This country is my own."
The question in his mind is whether that will prove enough to make the move permanent. The overt racism he has encountered in rural Limpopo province, long an Afrikaner bastion, has shocked him. Fellow whites, some his age, casually refer to black people as kaffirs, a racial epithet akin to the N-word.
"I think it's going to stay very racist," he said glumly.
Botha speaks out against behavior that bothers him. When a black employee deferentially looked at the ground while addressing him, he told the man, "No, you don't have to look down." The two have since become friendly.
When black workers out of habit climbed into the back of the company pickup truck, he invited them to ride up front with him. They sat in the cab "in shock" - because it was so at odds with custom.
A white man later raised the issue with Botha. "Why do you let kaffirs sit in front with you?" he asked. Botha said he replied, "I don't care if he's white or black or green or blue; he's a person."
Botha calls his family "very non-racist." Prior to the move to America, his family raised their maid's son after she died. He is heartened that some old friends share his views of equality. But "some are stuck in that thing where they think blacks are under you, you don't have to respect them."
Like many whites and blacks, he finds the crime frightening, though he knows it stems partly from apartheid's inferior education and the economic straitjacket that trapped blacks in poverty.
When he imagines the future, he cannot be sure this is where he would live. The racial climate disturbs him, as does the crime. Odds are decent, he figures, that he will venture back to the U.S. to raise a family.
"I really hope this country changes its act," he said, "but it's still a long way from it."