When white residents of Johannesburg's affluent northern suburbs entertain friends at dinner or meet at cocktail parties these days, the conversation invariably turns to the subject of quitting the country.

Whether to go or to stay has become an obsession - particularly among the mobile, better qualified English-speaking sector of the population.Local newspapers run ads daily placed by "emigration consultants" or lawyers offering advice (for a fee) on how, for example, to get a U.S. green card. And when the publisher of an investment newsletter advertised a guide on how to acquire a foreign passport, he reputedly sold out in a few days.

A recent "fears and fantasies" survey conducted by an advertising agency among white South Africans found that 28 percent of them said they "often" or "sometimes" thought about emigrating, and 8 percent said it was "very likely" they would emigrate in the next five years.

Deteriorating political and economic perceptions of South Africa have led to a sharp increase in emigration in the last two years. And what disturbs the business community here is that most of the people leaving are from the country's top cadre of qualified and experienced professionals.

During 1986, for the first time in seven years, South Africa had more emigrants than immigrants. In 1982 there was a net gain of nearly 39,000 migrants. But by the first nine months of 1986 this had swung to a net loss of more than 5,400 (see table).

Every month since September 1985, more people have been leaving than coming into South Africa - and there is no sign of the position changing yet.

In the first nine months of 1986, immigration of 5,355 was offset against the 10,767 who left the country permanently. Of the economically active people who left, 41 percent were professional and technical workers - including engineers, doctors, accountants, dentists and teachers.

"The outflow will result in a critical manpower shortage at management level," predicts Martin Westcott, managing director of a leading management consultancy, P-E Corporate Services. "When there is an upswing in the economy, a lot of organizations are going to experi ence staff shortages they won't be able to overcome easily."

The collapse of the South African currency, the rand, has placed a heavy penalty on emigration. An emigrating family is allowed to take out a maximum of R100,000 in foreign currency, but it must be exchanged at the financial rand rate.

This has been fluctuating between 20 and 24 US cents for the past year, so that a family setting up a home in a new land will at best have the equivalent of $24,000 with which to do it.

(South Africa has a two-tier rand. The commercial rand - worth about 44 US cents - is used for trade transactions and the financial rand for capital movements.)

Most people are going to Britain (some 800,000 people in South Africa are of British origin) and Australia (which has stepped up immigration of people with needed skills).

But the most favored destination, according to a survey, is the United States - if only people could get in. Travel agents here say the U.S. consulate is implementing a deliberate "go slow" on visa and immigration applications.

The exodus has resulted in booming business for furniture removal companies. "The number of shipments abroad has doubled in the last 12 months," said one.

But this is not looked on with favor in government circles. One removal firm's advertisements were not accepted for broadcast on the state-owned radio network because it offered assistance to emigrants.

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