Zimbabwe provides an early test of President Reagan's policy toward southern Africa. Should a Republican administration give aid and comfort to those who ousted a white government and came to power espousing socialism? Or should the regional relevance of a well-functioning Zimbabwe outweigh ideological considerations?
Answers to these and similar questions are awaited throughout black Africa. Will the Reagan administratoin respond to Africa's needs, or will it impose a global litmus test primarily upon the rhetoric of leaders and their parties? Will the battle against global terrorism and Washington's determination to evaluate freshly issues of human rights force Africans to be either "for us" or "against us" when they would prefer to act independently?
Zimbabwe became a nation last April after a long, bitter war. Black nationalists were supported financially and military by Marxist governments. Many Republicans tried to prevent a nationalist victory, the demise of Ian Smith's white government, and specifically the triump of black leader Robert Mugabe. In exile, Mugabe had publicly aligned himself with revolutionary forms of socialism.
Since April, whatever his earlier rhetoric, Mr. Mugabe has led a pragmatic, incentive- oriented government. It has concentrated on the economic and social reconstruction of Zimbabwe but consciously without alarming whites (more than 210,000 have remained) or foreign investors or fundamentally altering the capitalist economy which Mugabe inherited.
His government's signal success has been in the field of agriculture. Before independence, fewer than 5,000 white farmers tilled about half of the country's land and produced the country's staple food and about $800 million worth of exports. Africans were long ago deprived of their land and nearly a million farm the overcrowded, eroded, poorly serviced half of the country.
Mr. Mugabe could have distributed white farms to black farmers and been backed by Africans. Instead, he has attempted verbally to reassure white farmers that their skills were needed in the new zimbabwe. He has advocated the maintenance of national prosperity before wholesale land distribution.
Most of all, his government raised the guaranteed purchase price of maize (corn) to a level which would encourage white (and also black) farmers to stay home and grow maize (instead of flooding to the cities). A bumper crop of two million tons is predicted, leaving more than one million for sale to other, hungry African nations. White farmers are naturally pleased, their leaders voicing strong support of Mugabe. And the white Commercial Farmers Union has, in consequence, increased rather than lost paid-up members.
Foreign-owned mining companies and local manufacturers are also bullish about Mugabe's Zimbabwe. They applaud the sensible way in which he had led the new government. They are pleasantly surprised at his calm, unflamboyant approach to most problems. They have confidence in his continued good judgment. They were particularly pleased when he ousted the most outspokenly radical Cabinet minister. They also appreciate that the others in Mr. Mugabe's Cabinet are for the most part hard-working and strongly supportive of their prime minister.
Within the past few weeks, Mr. Mugabe also moved decisively to eliminate the combat between ex-guerrillas which was plaguing some African townships and giving an air of insecurity to the country. The loyalty of his now largely black regiments was demonstrated against the warring guerrillas who had begun to be integrated into the regular armed forces.
On the other side, whites may not like the fact that Mr. Mugabe has gained control over the country's main newspaper, formerly owned by a Soth African company, and the state television service. They worry that he may also compel the integration of all upper- class (and largely white) schools. There has been some integration of the health care facilities. Africans are being promoted in the civil service (but so are some prominent whites).
Overall, a visitor comes away from Zimbabwe with a distinctly positive impression. White businessmen exude confidence. Africans are concentrating on development, having put their victory over whites behind them. Cabinet ministers are conscious of how urgent it is to maintain the incentive-based momentum which has fueled Zimbabwe's present economic resurgence.
This month, the West will have an opportunity to take sides. Zimbabwe is calling a conference of potential donors. At that time, Mr. Mugabe's government will seek commitments from Western countries and lending institutions for a multiyear plan of reconstruction and development. Zimbabwe will be asking for at least $1.8 billion, and will want to use foreign assistance for land resettlement, irrigation equipment, rural roads and dip tanks, extension services, and urban housing. Most of all, Zimbabwe wants aid in order to demonstrate that a multiracial society can prosper without either black or white being denied equal opportunities for growth.
President Reagan's Office of Management and Budget has already opened the war against foreign aid. In the Senate, several Republicans still believe Mr. Mugabe is an unreconstructed Marxist. It is therefore up to the secretary of state and the President to see support for Mr. Mugabe as profoundly in America's self-interest.
Only a prospering Zimbabwe can contribute to the stability of southern Africa. Without that stability, the Soviet Union will be able, as it had done so often in other parts of Africa, to fish in troubled waters. Like Mr. Mugabe, President Reagan should not now be hel d to the rhetorical excesses of his campaign.