Harare, Zimbabwe — Like the drought that is turning this African capital from green to brown, the roots of newly independent Zimbabwe are in danger of withering before bearing fruit.
It is almost three years since white-ruled Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, nearly completing the post-colonial era that has brought black majority rule to most all of Africa. Coming late in the game with an exceptionally balanced and strong economy and relatively harmonious race relations, there was hope bordering on euphoria at the prospects for Zimbabwe.
Hope persists, based on a track record that most thoughtful observers say demonstrates Zimbabwe is studiously trying to avoid mistakes that have bedeviled many other independent African states. A key example is government support for white farmers, who not only feed the nation but produce a surplus that is exported.
And many blacks say the quest for dignity and self-determination that drove them on through 18 years of war against the white rulers - and produced February 1980 elections in which blacks gained control of government - has been satisfied.
George Nyandoro, one of the founding fathers of black nationalism in this country, says it is with a sense of ''real satisfaction'' that he drives home each day to a suburb previously occupied by whites. ''We can live where we want, we have one-man-one-vote, we are free. This is what we wanted,'' he says.
However, the economic and political climate in Zimbabwe is deteriorating, according to many knowledgeable analysts, who say the basic policies and early accomplishments of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's government are threatened. This also clouds the nation's future.
Looking back at the country's early successes in overcoming the social ruptures and economic dislocations caused by the war for black-majority rule, one well-placed observer now warns, ''There is the danger that everything that has been accomplished over the first three years could quickly unravel.''
Looking forward, thoughtful observers feel it will be some time before Mugabe's dream of transforming Zimbabwe into a socialist state can be achieved. His goal is a vital, expanding economy that will allow a substantial redistribution of wealth - a policy Mugabe calls ''growth with equity.''
With more immediate problems mounting, many analysts feel the government's attention will be distracted from its socialist ideals for at least the next year or so. And there is near consensus that the next year or so will be the most difficult period since 1979.
The challenges ahead:
* Mugabe's policy of national reconciliation aimed at fostering good black-white relations, as well as harmony between the black ethnic groups, is cracking.
Whites continue to leave the country, albeit in slower numbers than the record outflow of 1981. Many leave because they feel uncertain about their future in black-ruled Zimbabwe. Some say that socialism will lower the quality of education and health care as it opens schools and hospitals to a wider range of people. Others say the process of ''Africanization'' - rapid promotion of blacks into jobs previously held by whites - is reducing efficiency of services.
There are about 170,000 whites left in Zimbabwe - out of a total black-white population of 7.6 million - compared to about 270,000 five years ago.
Further, black factionalism is on the rise. The traditional enmity between Shona-speaking and Ndebele-speaking tribes was bridged somewhat during the war by their common push to overthrow white-minority rule. But it resurfaced with intensity last year when Prime Minister Mugabe's forces unearthed a cache of arms on land operated by Mugabe's coalition partner, Joshua Nkomo.
Nkomo was sacked from the Cabinet and relations between his Ndebele-speaking followers and the mainly Shona-speaking followers of Mugabe worsened. Dissident Ndebele-speakers in western Zimbabwe have begun to hamstring the government with acts of banditry, murder, and kidnapping.
* Zimbabwe's hopes of decreasing dependence on the white regime of South Africa, and becoming a hub of new economic self-reliance among the black states of southern Africa is proving very costly.
South Africa is Zimbabwe's leading trading partner. Seventy percent of its import-export traffic flows through South Africa, and until last year the landlocked country transported all its diesel fuel imports by rail through South Africa. The main area where it has attempted to free itself of ties with South Africa is energy. It reopened its fuel pipeline to the Mozambique port of Beira last year, but this may have brought on new troubles. Rebels in Mozambique, who are believed to have South African backing, regularly attack the pipeline. Zimbabwe is experiencing a fuel crisis following a December attack on the pipeline's storage facility in Beira.
* Prime Minister Mugabe's plans to turn Zimbabwe into a socialist state have raised high expectations among blacks that will be difficult to fulfill in the near future.
Zimbabwe was born in a period of robust economic activity that got the country off to a fast start. School enrollments have more than doubled since 1980, and blacks are quickly moving into teaching positions. Traditional job categories filled by blacks, such as domestic servants and farm laborers, show a falloff in numbers of employees. Blacks are moving quickly into government-sector jobs: There are about 83,000 government employees today, compared with 61,000 in 1979.
The government aim to quickly expand the economy may be laudable, but the pace has been too fast, says Eddie Cross, head of the Zimbabwe Institute of International Affairs. ''We are just plain living beyond our means,'' he says.
Financial restraints are expect to grow sharply over the next year as the world recession finally has its delayed effect here. Economists say unemployment is coming to be a ''serious problem,'' particularly with the country's rapid population growth of 3.5 percent a year. Jobs in the formal sector actually peaked in mid-1981 and are declining.Most private economists do not expect the Zimbabwe economy to grow appreciably this year. Many feel it could decline.
The prime minister's blueprint for socialism calls for growing government involvement in the economy, but a healthy private sector. However, there has been minimal foreign investment in Zimbabwe, which most businessmen here feel is a sign investors are still unsure about the risks of sinking money into Mugabe's emerging socialist state. The decision last year by H. H. Heinz, a multinational food firm, to invest $15 million in a food-processing business here is one of the few bright spots.
In addition to redistributing wealth, Mugabe's socialist ideal calls for a ''transformation'' of the economy. A prime example of this is the aim of redistribution of land from the white commercial farm sector to the black peasant class.
This program is off to a sluggish start and its goals appear hopelessly optimistic for the foreseeable future.
What all this means in the view of most knowledgeable observers is that a period of austerity is dawning that will require a new sense of pragmatism by the government.
Many are already encouraged that a more pragmatic approach is taking shape. In December the government devalued its currency 20 percent, raised the price of maize (a staple for blacks) by 30 percent, and slapped a lid on wages.
''These decisions were politically very painful, particularly for a new socialist government,'' says a diplomatic source. ''They show a seriousness and a realization on the part of the government that the country must act sensibly.''
It remains to be seen how politically palatable a period of austerity will be for a new country with such high hopes.
Blacks are beginning to grumble, some calling the capital, Harare, ''hapana, '' meaning ''nothing - no jobs, no rice, no bread.''
But looking back at the achievements since independence, many observers remain optimistic. Mugabe has welded together a political consensus out of a war-torn nation. He has built a wide range of international relations that justify calling Zimbabwe nonaligned. ''On balance they are still ahead of the game,'' says one observer.