Bulawayo, Zimbabwe — Joshua Nkomo, leader of Zimbabwe's minority ZAPU party, is a shaken man.
''In all 30 years of the struggle (against colonialism),'' he says, ''I never suffered as I have in four months of Mugabe's rule.''
Four months ago Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's government unearthed a cache of arms from two properties owned by Nitram, Ltd., a company Nkomo directed. Nkomo and three others in his party were sacked from their Cabinet posts. The government seized about 20 Nitram-ZAPU and Nkomo-owned properties, including farms, a motel, and even Nkomo's family home in Highfield, a township of the capital.
Since then, violence has become more frequent. Government officials blame ''bandits'' and ''dissidents'' for the turbulence.
Mr. Mugabe himself says the actions are ''efforts to destabilize the government.'' His minister of construction says the government aims to end the banditry now so it can get on with solving problems in the rural areas.
And the rebels, who have robbed travelers and assaulted officials, have caused some government resettlement and reconstruction projects to slow. On July 23, six foreign tourists were kidnapped near Bulawayo on their way to Johannesburg; they have still not been found. Shortly after the abductions, explosions at a base near Gweru destroyed about one-quarter of the country's air force capability. Most recently, three British tourists were found dead in suspicious circumstances.
Some contend that government moves to deal with this ferment are more destabilizing than the dissidence. Mistrust has always run high between the Matabele, who are the bedrock of Nkomo's ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People's Union), and the Mashona, who largely support Mugabe's ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union).
One observer says, ''Mugabe made the mistake of going after Nkomo. He equated Nkomo with the dissidents, and the dissidents with the Matabele people. Now they'll never forgive him.''
Some see a slim new shaft of hope in a meeting between the rival leaders. Mugabe and Nkomo met face to face recently, a meeting that some have taken as a move to defuse growing tension between their followers.
For his part, Nkomo publicly deplores the violence and has called for an investigation. Some in the country say South African ''subversion'' is to blame. But those who suspect Nkomo are renewing pressure for his arrest.
Government officials say privately they have evidence against Nkomo but fear a trial would provoke more violence. Instead, the government is stepping up its military activity in the area near Nkomo's home in Bulawayo.
In late June, Army roadblocks were set up at three locations in Bulawayo. Soldiers patrolling with automatic weapons asked those who passed for their identity cards and searched house to house for weapons. Suspects were detained in fields behind barbed wire.
About 400 people, mostly ex-guerrillas in Nkomo's ZIPRA army, have been detained since then, sources say. National Army desertions have risen, they say, with almost 1,000 of about 40,000 soldiers fleeing into the bush in June alone.
From the sun-drenched capital city of Harare (formerly Salisbury), it is difficult to gauge the extent of bitterness caused by the violence and government actions against it in the countryside. In the heart of the Mashona homeland, Mugabe remains a popular leader. Most of its residents support his ZANU party and even his idea of a one-party state.
In Matabeleland, the reaction is different.
Nkomo says he finds nothing wrong with the one-party state. Yet he cautions, ''If it (a one-party state) came as a result of a unanimity of the elements of the country, fine. But if it comes as a result of one party because it is in power, using the state machinery to become a one-party state, then it's horrible.''
The people of Matabeleland believe, says a rural organizer, that ''the government already is the ZANU party.'' He adds, ''You have to be ZANU to get any jobs in the national structure. You have to be Shona.''
Government redevelopment efforts, they claim, are concentrated in ZANU areas.
Indeed, of 13,000 black families resettled (as of February) on formerly white farmland, only 1,300 or 10 percent have been in Matabeleland, though the area is home to 20 percent of the country's population and constitutes one-third of its land mass.
Ironically, the programs of the two parties are not dissimilar. But Nkomo is critical of the Mugabe resettlement plan.
He would not resettle black families onto land owned by white families. Nkomo favors using the land for whatever it seems best suited - whether it is grazing, cultivation, or another use. He would organize African villages on the reserves where the blacks now live and stress cooperative development, rather than individual landholding.
It is this last point that a Cabinet member admits privately is of great concern to Mugabe and the men around him.
According to the government, the terms worked out with the British in 1979 call for resettlement, not grazing.