Whites warm to life in Zimbabwe, but cool to election

Whites in Zimbabwe seem largely indifferent to their parliamentary elections scheduled for Thursday. But beyond the elections, whites seem more enthusiastic about developments in general -- and their futures -- in Zimbabwe. The white emigration that followed Zimbabwe's (formerly Rhodesia) independence in 1980 has slowed and there are signs that some who left are returning.

Sarah Bishop, a computer operator who returned from England this year, said ``We missed the sun, the easy life style, the people, the unspoilt countryside. You can't beat it anywhere.''

Zimbabwe's independence constitution guaranteed 20 seats for whites in Parliament, seats that will be contested this week. The country's black majority votes July l and 2 to elect representatives for the remaining 80 seats in Parliament.

Terence Oatt, vice-president of the Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe (CAZ), led by Ian Smith, former prime minister of Rhodesia, estimated that whites eligible to vote number twice those registered.

Still, rivalry among the three white parties and the seven independents is fierce and often bitter. Thousand of dollars have been spent on advertising campaigns for the 20 seats reserved for whites.

Perceived antiwhite sentiment in the first two years after independence stimulated the departure of some 150,000 whites up to the beginning of 1985. But such sentiments are rarely evident now. Strong signs of economic recovery, and widespread acknowledgment that Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's promise to transform the economy along Marxist-Leninist lines has so far been more rhetorical than actual, have apparently accounted for a decline in the emigration rate.

But the government has indicated it plans to reduce white representation in Parliament. Those plans are expected to have the support of black legislators elected when the country's black population votes.

The unanimous consent of all 100 members is now required for changes in the Constitution. But that provision expires in 1987, when the required number drops to 70. Government officials expect it will not be difficult to muster those votes. If the Constitution is changed to eliminate the provision for a guaranteed number of seats for whites, the next white election, now scheduled for 1987, will not take place.

The constitutional clause was originally designed to assure whites -- about 1 percent of the population -- that their interests would be represented as Zimbabwe made the transition to independence.

Emigration of whites, who are a major force in the country's economy, does continue, but one powerful restraint is the government's ruling that only a small amount of money can be taken out of the country by those choosing to leave.

There are signs of whites returning. Trevor Bailey, said his moving company brought back the belongings of 49 former Zimbabwean families from South Africa in March and April this year, compared with none in the same period last year. ``The indications are that the number will increase,'' he said.

White indifference toward the election was evident in the small numbers that showed up at meetings held by the Independent Zimbabwe Group (IZG), made up chiefly of former members of Parliament who broke away from Mr. Smith's party in 1982. ``What for? Let them [the government] get on with it,'' says John Bird, a structural engineer, when asked if he was going to vote.

The differences between the two main white protagonists, the CAZ and the IZG, are blurred. The IZG accuses the CAZ of damaging white interests by steering a confrontational course with the government. But the CAZ say it has supported the government on 95 percent of the bills introduced in the last five years.

Interest will focus on Smith, whose party suffers a drawback: Many dislike being associated with the man responsible for resisting black rule.

Smith, running from a rural constituency is thought by some officials, privately, to be at risk. Appearing in a television interview he justified his stance on Rhodesia during the period he was its prime minister (1964-79), declaring he would never regret a minute of it. Smith is considered a favorite against Irish-born Paddy Shields, the IZG candidate.

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