Why 100,000 white Rhodesians never left Zimbabwe. It may be frustrating, but it's home

MIDDLE-class whites here can afford servants, comfortable suburban bungalows with swimming pools, and well-tended gardens. Overall, the whites realize that they would be hard pressed to find another country with an equally attractive life style. As long as standards in health and security are maintained, they say, Zimbabwe is a good place to live. ``It's frustrating sometimes, but this is our home,'' says Annette Francis, whose husband farms near Mvurwi in northern Zimbabwe. ``We can still give our children a good education and we have one of the best climates in the world. Where else could we go?''

But whites here always seem to be seeking reassurance from visitors that their choice to stay has been a right one. A vote of confidence

Nearly six and a half years after Zimbabwe's independence, some 100,000 whites out of an original population of some 250,000 have opted to stay. Their choice is widely seen as a demonstration of confidence in the future of this southern African nation, formerly known as Rhodesia.

Those whites who opt for Zimbabwean nationality include bank directors and technicians; they range from mechanical engineers to secretaries. They also include the majority of Zimbabwe's 4,500 commercial farmers, who rank among the world's best and produce over a third of the nation's export revenue.

While other black African states rely heavily on expensive imported expertise, Zimbabwe's leftover colonial ``immigrant'' element represents one of its strongest economic assets.

After five long years of fighting for majority rule, radical members of the new black leadership would have liked nothing better than to kick the whites out when independence came in April 1980. But Prime Minister Robert Mugabe saw a need to keep them on -- both for their expertise and for their ability to provide jobs and help fund social reforms. Although much of the nation's tax base has been lost through emigraton, whites still represent the most important source of fiscal revenue.

``The best way to explain it,'' said Mick Townsend of the Central Farmers' Union, ``is that if they didn't want us to stay, we wouldn't be here.'' Zimbabwe's neighbors -- Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique -- also lost much of their ``immigrant'' expertise when independence came to their nations. They are now seeking to lure it back.

Meanwhile, in a startling about-face, a growing number of Rhodesian 'emigr'es -- particularly those who went to South Africa and are now of military age -- are seeking to return.

``I just spent two years in South Africa studying, but you can see things turning sour down there. I got my call-up papers, but I've already fought enough [in the Rhodesian war]. I don't want to get caught up in theirs,'' said one young man in a broad ``Rhodie'' brogue. ``The Afrikaaners,'' he added, ``should look at what happened here and negotiate with the blacks. Zimbabwe is doing pretty well. . . . Mugabe has learned from Tanzania and Zambia. He knows he needs the whites.''

Since independence, most whites have opted for the private sector as their best bet for the future. ``If I were a high school counselor I would not advise a young white to go into the civil service,'' said one Western diplomat. Observers say the civil service is far less efficient today than during the Rhodesian era. Qualified whites, such as agricultural engineers or administrators, have left because of poor pay or outright discrimination. Many whites find themselves passed over in promotion in favor of black political appointees.

Nevertheless, say observers, a number of whites remain involved in the Central Intelligence Organization at a senior level. Mr. Mugabe's own protection, too, is organized by white security specialists and his planes are piloted by whites only. ``He trusts them because they're experienced professionals who do their job well,'' commented a former police superintendent.

It can even be argued that there is better racial harmony between blacks and whites than between Zimbabwe's majority Shona and minority Ndebele tribes.

All the same, Zimbabwe has a long way to go before it can boast of having a truly multiracial society. There is relatively little social mixing. Friction between blacks and whites runs high in some quarters. And only a small portion of whites, notably those in rural areas, speak any of the indigenous languages.

Some whites, particularly the older generation, continue to harbor deep bitterness over black rule. At the same time, there is resentment among blacks at the way whites continue to control the economy. Politicians, too, are quick to condemn any form of criticism from the white community as ``racist'' and to blame shortcomings of the present government on the ``white colonial'' legacy. `State of siege' continues

In southern Zimbabwe's Matabeleland the state of siege has never really ended for most white farmers. For the past 14 years, Mike Wood has run his 14,000-acre cattle ranch near Nyamandhlovu in Matabeland. But it is no easy life. Both he and some 300 other white farmers who have chosen to remain in that region have suffered from three years of bad drought.

Homesteads are protected by security fences, one avoids traveling after 5 p.m., and armed militiamen accompany farmers as they tend their cattle or visit neighbors. ``We've lost about 40 people since independence from what we call dissidents or bandits, that's twice as many as during the war,'' explained Mr. Wood, who packs a pistol at his hip. ``But we're not going to be scared off.''

Despite such travails, one hears little criticism of the Prime Minister, whom many whites consider to be their best guarantor. Most are encouraged by Mugabe's reconciliation efforts and seem committed to the new Zimbabwe. They are also keen to participate in its development. ``This country has a tremendous future,'' noted tobacco farmer George Grant. ``I was thinking of leaving because of Marxism, but it didn't turn out that way. We've done well . . . but if we're to remain here, we must be productive.'' Apprehensive about future

Most whites here remain apprehensive about the future. Events in South Africa forbode tough times ahead. Cynical whites point to the economic disasters elsewhere on the continent to show what South Africans should expect under black rule. The majority, however, are extremely nationalistic and resent what is widely seen as South Africa's efforts to destabilize neighbor nations under black rule.

``During UDI, we missed a lot of opportunities,'' noted one farmer speaking of Zimbabwe's former white-ruled independence under Ian Smith.

``We should have negotiated much earlier. I'm not just saying this now, but some of us realized that black rule was inevitable. We could have done without the war and been at a much better advantage today. That's what those thick Afrikaaners should realize. I tell you, man, there's a lesson to be learned.''

Another concern is that tribal division and an erosion of civil liberties under a one-party dictatorship could severely undermine the country.

The detention of two white customs officers earlier this year, despite a Supreme Court order for thier release, has already given many whites cause to worry. So has the recent unconstitutional decision of the home affairs minister Enos Nkala to revoke the Zimbabwean nationality of a white reporter. Journalist Jan Raath's nationality was revoked for allegedly providing Amnesty International with information on human rights abuses.

As it is, Zimbabwe's whites can expect major constitutional changes in the year ahead. Mugabe has said that he intends to abolish the 20 parliamentary seats reserved for whites under the present political system. Many accept this as inevitable and are reluctant to oppose it for fear of arousing racial tension.

For the moment, however, many whites do not necessarily see politics as the best way to represent their interests. The Commercial Farmers' Union, for example, has long been the best platform for expressing the views of white farmers.

``I think it will be better for us all when the white seats are dropped,'' pondered Chris Bennett, a commercial farmer living in northern Zimbabwe's fertile Barwick area. ``It's a special status that's causing us a lot more friction than it's worth.''

As with many former Rhodesians, Mr. Bennett feels that, at least for the present, their best form of representation is through the quiet lobbying of professional organizations such as the Commercial Farmers' Union, rather than through members of parliament.

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