Johannesburg — By fleeing Zimbabwe, opposition leader Joshua Nkomo has helped to perpetuate the problem that has plagued Africa's newest nation since its independence in 1980.
Concern about Zimbabwe's direction under black rule has played a major role in the exodus of whites. Confusion about how Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's philosophy of socialism would work in practice has held back foreign investors.
Mr. Nkomo's departure adds new political uncertainties to Zimbabwe's already unsettled situation. Many wonder how Nkomo will use his political influence. Might he, from exile, try to stir more unrest in southwestern Zimbabwe, his power base; or might he return to Zimbabwe within a few weeks, as he has vowed? There is also a question whether his influence will dissipate if he stays in exile.
But the important, long-term unknown is whether Zimbabwe will remain governable given the growing disaffection of the 20 percent of the population that has been loyal to Nkomo.
Says a knowledgeable observer: ''The basic question now is will Mr. Mugabe be able to rule by consent or will he have to maintain a military-style rule in Matabeleland (Nkomo's stronghold and the scene of rising dissident activity).''
Nkomo's flight to Botswana last week, followed by his weekend journey to London probably is not displeasing to Mugabe. His government has been trying to discredit Nkomo since early 1982 when he was sacked from the Cabinet for alleged involvement in a coup plot.
In London, Nkomo said Sunday he wanted to make a deal with Mugabe for his safe return and a settlement of violence in southwestern Zimbabwe. Mugabe has ruled out such negotiations until Nkomo returns to Zimbabwe.
The list of allegations against Nkomo since then has lengthened, but the government has appeared reluctant to arrest him. How to deal with Nkomo had become a thorny question within Mugabe's own political party before Nkomo's exit , with radicals urging strong action and the more moderate faction urging restraint, say sources in Harare.
Nkomo's ''voluntary'' departure leaves the Mugabe government with a confused and greatly weakened opposition ZAPU Party. Some key ZAPU members reportedly want Nkomo replaced, particularly if he remains in exile.
ZAPU already shows signs of recognizing it must act in a conciliatory way toward the government, or possibly face extinction. ZAPU vice-president Josiah Chinamano has disassociated the party with Nkomo's ''personal'' decision to leave the country and pledged loyalty to the government's policy of unity, peace , and reconciliation.
Many observers consider how Mugabe now deals with ZAPU to be one of the key pending developments. The government's campaign against Nkomo and ZAPU for the alleged coup plot has been clouded by suspicions that Mugabe was motivated by a desire to bring about single-party rule.
The government has urged the remaining ''patriots'' in ZAPU to ''close ranks'' with Mugabe's party to achieve ''unity.'' But analysts wonder whether Mugabe will pressure simply for ''reform'' of ZAPU or whether he will ''finish off'' the opposition party.
How Mugabe deals with ZAPU at this stage could influence whether the tensions between the largely Shona-speaking followers of Mugabe and the Ndebele-speaking Nkomo supporters are heightened or slowly defused.
Nkomo's future is unknown. As he readied to board his plane for London, the ZAPU leader said he would ''be going home . . . in a few weeks.'' It is not seen as very likely that Nkomo will be allowed by any of the black states neighboring Zimbabwe to operate militarily from within their borders.
Although Nkomo has now become a symbol of the Zimbabwe turmoil, many analysts feel that how Mugabe deals with the internal situation remains the key to Zimbabwe's future stability.