London — Robert Mugabe's clear majority following the recent election in Rhodesia has taken Britain by surprise -- and produced a tenor of cautious optimism. "We were flabbergasted," said a government official. Mr. Mugabe had been expected to top the list of candidates. But it was still though possible that a coalition of his former Patriotic Front colleague Joshua Nkomo and their old enemy Bishop Abel Muzorewa might form the new government.
But the British government, press, and business community now generally agree that the country's voters, who gave Mr. Mugabe 57 of the 100 seats in the assembly, made what the Guardian newspaper called "the best possible decision."
Observers here, feeling that the threat of a white coup has been shunted aside and that neither white South Africa nor the black frontline states will come rushing in, expect that peace will continue. There is also the feeling, as the government official noted, that every day that passes without incident makes the peace stronger.
The swing in public opinion has been sudden, almost violent. In his recent television address, widely seen as conciliatory and statesmanlike, the Prime Minister-elect appears to have soothed a stock market earlier sent into jitters by news of his election. Calming fear of sudden nationalization, he preached a message of unity that echoed very little of his tough lines during the Lancaster House conference last fall.
For a business community educated to believe that Mr. Mugabe was fire-breathing Marxist -- or, as former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith called him in a recent widely reported comment, "an apostle of Satan" -- the moderation of his approach has been stunning.
With the exception of some right-wing Conservatives, there has also been an outpouring of good will -- even self-satisfaction -- from both sides of the House of Commons. The government is committed to helping Mr. Mugabe meld the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army and Zimbabwe Peoples Liberation Army guerrilla armies and the Rhodesian security forces -- into a unified service.
The ministry of defense here is preparing to appoint a British military adviser and training team. Their assignment will last well beyond independence, now forecast for the end of March or early April.
Britain is also offering economic aid, technical assistance, and training in the United Kingdom -- and trusting that Europe, the United States, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe will follow suit.
It has also responded warmly to Mr. Mugabe's request for assistance from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in restructuring the country's radio and television service -- lest the East Germans be invited to do the job, as they were in Angola.
And Britain has agreed to sponsor Zimbabwe for membership in the United Nations, the Commonwealth, and for accession to the Lome Covention, which would give it access to the European Community.
Will the euphoria last? There is still, as one observer noted, "a long legacy of bitterness," most of Mr. Mugabe's team have spent many years in Ian Smith's jails.
So Mr. Mugabe, balancing a fragile confidence, still faces slick footing as he maneuvers between the demands of his own hard-liners and the need for a broad-based government reassuring to the whites.