Nkomo's historic return

The return of Joshua Nkomo to Rhodesia dramatizes how far his beautiful, tormented land has come on the arduous journey toward peace and democracy. The long-time nationalist leader has left guerrilla tactics behind for participation in the elections beginning Feb. 27 -- just 21 years after the notorious "Operation Sunrise" when 500 members of Mr. Nkomo's old African National Congress group were rounded up by colonial authoritories and held without trial.

Since then Mr. Nkomo has been in and out of detention, in and out of the country, finally joining his forces with Robert Mugabe's in the Patriotic Front of the past few years. Mr. Mugabe is expected back next week to campaign separately. With self-control and cooperation on all sides, Rhodesia will have its best chance so far to make a transition to independence and majority rule with order and justice.

No one is claiming it will be easy. Violence during the cease-fire has reminded everyone of the pitfalls. Many guerrillas failed to meet the deadline for assembling in Rhodesia. No one knows whether those who have fought with guns will abide by the ballot box.

But the British interim government has acted -- rather than overreacted -- in the interests of making the London conference settlement work. Firmness has been combined with means to let laggard guerrillas come in.

Meanwhile, the reopening of the Rhodesia- Mozambique border for the first time in four years illustrates the efforts being undertaken to restore Rhodesia's channels of commerce and communication. British Airways air service between London and Salisbury has begun again. Trade sanctions have been ended. The economy has been given a boost. The drain of white Rhodesians has lessened.

The reports of cease-fire violations are accompanied by a profoundly brighter side. Uncensored news. People greeting returning nationalist exiles without fear of suffering from the government for it. Thousands were reportedly on hand to cheer Mr. Nkomo.

Many parties will be competing in the elections. The authorities face a difficult task in ensuring freedom and fairness. But a process that once seemed so unlikely is promisingly underway. It is important that Rhodesia's neighbors -- the black states on the one hand and South Africa on the other -- play a supportive rather than an interfering role. The same is true of the whole international community. With all the strife elsewhere, here is a chance to prove humanity canm get together for the healing of the nations.

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