Mugabe's sound start -- and how others can help

Events in Rhodesia continue to be a timely and heart-lifting lesson to the world that it need not succumb to seemingly intractable problems. Even the delay of Independence Day, when the country officially becomes Zimbabwe, can be counted a favorable rather than ominous sign. It had initially been thought that the British, their duty discharged -- and not wanting to get caught in a cross fire -- would exit as quickly as possible after the elections. But, given instead the buoyant atmosphere of good will and cooperation all around, they have agreed to await transfer of power to the government of Robert Mugabe until stability is assured. Even after the handover, expected now in mid-april, they will keep a presence in Zimbabwe, primarily to help with integration of the armed forces.

Security indeed remains one of the critical tasks of the new government. After 14 years of civil strife virtually everyone has a gun in the country and, aside from the clashes which could still take place between former rival guerrillas, there is the problem of banditry. Mr. Mugabe has called on the people to turn in their weapons. And, through a committee headed by the respected white officer, General Walls, he has launched the process of integrating the two guerrilla groups of the Patriotic Front with the Rhodesian security forces. As a result, the situation has already dramatically improved.

Other measures, too, are in the spirit of Prime Minister Mugabe's extraordinary policy of reconciliation and moderation. He has appointed Joshua Nkomo, his partner in the Patriotic Front guerrilla struggle, Minister of Home Affairs with important authority over the police. Three others from Mr. Nkomo's camp are also in the Cabinet. Especially important, he has given two posts to whites, a move which should do much to assure the country's 230,000 whites they need not fear a black majority government and will have a fair chance. These appointments are the crucial portfolios of industry and agriculture and therefore will be doubly welcome to the whites, who now look to Mr. Mugabe to live up to his promise not to expropriat their properties and to preserve a capitalist economy.

Is all this widow dressing? some might ask. Will Mr. Mugabe, a professional Marxist, really abandon his ideological principles and bent in favor of a moderate, democratic, nonaligned course? That answer will have to await time, of course. But if he gradually sheds the political platform which he carried in battle, he will not be the first figure in history to have done so. His early actions give cautious hope that he is above all a nationalist and pragmatist, wishing to be beholden to no outside power. Leading a nation which, despite the ruinous years of warfare, has one of the strongest economies in Africa and a potential for enormous influence on the continent, it is hard to think Mr. Mugabe would lightly destroy these advantages by resorting to radical policies that have not proved effective in neighboring countries.

The new Zimbabwe will need substantial help, however, if it is to realize its potential. Experts warn that it may take years for the country to recover from the ravages of war unless a commitment is made to long-term economic aid. The United States, among others, is now in process of assessing the situation and weighing what contributions it might make to a multilateral aid effort. In this time of severe inflation, foreign aid generally has been falling victim to budget cuts. But here is a case where failure to reach out to a third-world nation could impair the long-term US interest. And where Marxist temptations can be fought in the most meaningful and practical way -- through strenghtening a country's democratic foundations.

Mr. Mugabe has made an incredibly good start in putting Zimbabwe on the road to democratic independence and laying the ground for blacks and whites working together. The est should do everything it can to help him pursue his promising middle course.

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