First step in an uncertain journey

Robin Wright June 11 1979

First step in an uncertain journey

Robin Wright June 11 1979

First step in an uncertain journey

Zimbabwe Rhodesia

Robin Wright

Despite the ringing words of newly installed Prime Minister Bishop Abel Muzorewa—“this is the day the Lord has made”—last week’s transfer of power in Rhodesia was surprisingly quiet after 14 suspenseful years that triggered the tempers of governments throughout Africa, Europe, North America and the Eastern bloc. Big yellow vans from Biddulph’s cartage company simply crated up the be-

longings of ex-prime minister Ian Smith and moved them to a modest house in Salisbury’s affluent Avenues while officials of the new majority rule government moved into the jobs, offices and homes once occupied by whites.

Few in the capital even noticed. The only hiccup involved the leader’s livestock: as Smith’s staff was devising a solution to the problem of moving his prize Japanese goldfish to a new home without an outdoor pond, health officials were debating what to do about rumors that the new prime minister, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, planned to move the goats, sheep and pigs which he keeps as a hobby from his backyard to the prime minister’s official estate.

Outwardly, there was little to mark the transfer of power in the newly named nation of Zimbabwe Rhodesia which last week ended 89 years of exclusively white rule in the southern African territory and marked the climax of Smith’s controversial leadership career. The transition nevertheless underlined the enigma of a country that has stubbornly refused to comply with, or be understood by, the standards of the outside world. By most foreign readings, the new system was a formula for disaster since it provided for:

• An African take-over in principle, with guaranteed special rights and political representation for whites for 10 years.

• A multi-party cabinet including

the one white and three black parties that won seats in the first one-man, one-vote election in April.

• A multi-tribal government, with Muzorewa’s Shona tribe dominating, but with a president from the traditional rival, the Ndebeles—an arrangement that contradicts the pattern throughout the rest of Africa and is especially precarious in light of the two groups’ historic mutual mistrust.

The latest move to arouse skepticism was the lineup of Muzorewa’s 17-member cabinet announced last weekwhites occupy the key ministries of finance and justice. But most notable was the choice of Smith as minister without portfolio—a post which will allow the wily politician to stick his fingers into several pots including intelligence and foreign affairs. It will almost certainly also offer critics grounds to argue that the former prime minister is still at least partially in control, although Muzorewa kept the crucial roles of defence and combined operations for himself. This means that he will at least nominally make decisions about the military’s campaign to end the six-year-old guerrilla war and that a black will be seen to be in control of an army which has whites as its high-ranking officers.

Another telling feature of the new government is that it only roughly represents the racial breakdown of the first majority rule administration: three black ministers for every one white—a disproportionate combination since, generally, there are 25 blacks to every one white. Yet another is that one of the black opposition parties, led by the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, has already refused to take up its share of the cabinet posts and seats in parliament on the grounds that there were “gross irregularities” during the election. There was thus a crack in the “government of national unity” even before it got off the ground.

From the white point of view the omens were scarcely more reassuring. None of the blacks in the cabinet had any experience in office and several new black members of parliament were former guerrillas or political detainees. The daily “Meet the MPs” columns in Salisbury’s Herald newspaper have such headlines as: FORMER GUERRILLA, NOW NATIONAL YOUTH LEADER, SAKALA TRAINED IN CHINA, and RUSSIANTRAINED SECRET AGENT NOW MP.

In all, they represent a volatile combination which seems unbelievable as a sequel to Smith’s view, aired as recently as 1976, that he did not expect to see Africans in power “for another thousand years.” Yet Zimbabwe Rhodesians, in typical fashion, watched it happen without even blinking. As a young white businessman commented: “People have become immune to political events here.

The place continues to tick over, whatever happens.”

In fact, the overnight transfer is not likely to mean overnight changes. Muzorewa faces the same problems as his predecessor: how to cope with the war and 14 years of international isolation. The transfer of power has not yet altered Zimbabwe Rhodesia’s status as a political pariah and may never do so.

At home, the only noticeable changes so far are those in blacks’ lifestyles: multiracial sport among students at recently integrated schools,black stewardesses on Air Rhodesia, a black runnerup in Salisbury’s annual “Swinging Miss” beauty pageant (judged by a multiracial panel), the seemingly endless stream of blacks in driver-training cars in the capital’s tiny downtown area and the property transfer announcements in The Herald showing that almost half of the sales of white homes are now to blacks.

Whites still have the edge in education and experience, and it may be a generation before the blacks in positions of social and economic power are proportionate to the population. Despite emigration—high in the first quarter of 1979, when some 5,700 whites “took the gap,” compared with roughly 4,100 in the same period last yearwhites still control large sections of the economy, military and civil service.

Hundreds are waiting to see what the new government does, however, and how the outside world reacts. If the situation stagnates and the war does not end, insiders believe all but a hard core of just under a third of the existing population of 225,000 will eventually leave. At his valedictory press conference, Smith admitted that there are now more guerrillas than ever inside the troubled territory. Unofficial estimates go as high as 12,500 insurgents operating inside the borders with another 15,000 training at bases in neighboring Zambia and Mozambique.

Smith also said that greater numbers of guerrillas were turning themselves in under the country’s new total amnesty plan and that others were waiting until the installation of the new government. But two previous plans that offered partial amnesty failed and, in recent interviews and statements, Patriotic Front leaders Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe have repeated their pledges to fight it out. In fact, in yet another effort to appear united, the co-leaders met secretly in Ethiopia last month to agree on a formal constitution and the merger of their forces.

The other factor on which the Muzorewa government and the whites are depending is action by the British and United States governments to end sanctions. Officials in Salisbury believe public sentiment is too strong to allow either administration to block the move and that the lifting of sanctions will allow Muzorewa and company to prove themselves. Foreign investment and exports would provide more money to be spent on better education programs for blacks and on creating new jobs which would alleviate a large African unemployment problem. The end of sanctions would also mean that the security forces could buy equipment on the open market—instead of through underground middlemen at up to five times the normal price—and one military spokesman privately said that could turn the war around within 18 months.

But last week it looked to be a very optimistic assessment and while U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was on record with the view that the U.S. might agree to lift sanctions if the Muzorewa government got down to talks with the Popular Front, pressure from other Commonwealth countries—conservative Australia as well as radical black African members—seemed equally likely to make it difficult for Britain to follow suit. With so many unknowns haunting the birth of the new nation, observers were left to wonder if it would not, after all, be stillborn.-^?