To what degree can the United States rely on future supplies of strategic minerals from this part of the world? The looming transition of this southern African country to majority rule, coupled with Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, has sparked fresh concern on this point.
The reason: Much of the world's supply of such vital metals as chrome, manganese, and cobalt comes either from the Soviet Union or southern Africa.
With American-Soviet relations deteriorating and this mineral-rich, white-ruled colony about to become the black- majority-ruled nation of Zimbabwe, some analysts are pondering whether US dependence on imported minerals from potentially unreliable suppliers parallels its precarious reliance on foreign oil.
Rep. James D. Santini (D) on Nevada, interviewed here during a fact-finding tour of southern Africa, says that the situation is cause for serious concern. Citing one example, Representative Santini, a member of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, says that "80 percent of the free world's supply of chrome comes from South Africa and Rhodesia, mostly Rhodesia.
"You can't make a hospital in compliance with existing regulations. You can't make a car, you can't make a jet airplane, without chrome," adds the silver-haired American representative.
By March, Rhodesia is scheduled to have a new government. And two of the top three contending parties -- the Patriotic Front and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) -- have been supported by the Soviet Union in their struggle to come to power here.
The Soviet Union, with an estimated annual chrome output of 2.5 million tons, is the world's second-largest producer of the metal. Acting in concert with a friendly government here, it could manipulate both supply and price of the key commodity.
For the US, dependent on imports for over 90 percent of its chrome needs, the implications could be ominous. The only other major supplier is white-ruled South Africa, which some analysts believe will be facing increasing internal unrest in coming years.
While the Soviets have cultivated friends here, American companies allegedly have undertaken private diplomacy -- with some questionable results. An official of one American company, Allegheny Ludlum Industries, Inc., reportedly aided the South African Government in funneling secret funds to a party headed by long-time nationalist James Chikerema. Most election observers give the party virtually no chance of winning next month's elections.
The US also imports some 98 percent of its manganese, the hardening element in steel alloys. Mr. Santini says 93 percent of the noncommunist world's reserve are in South Africa.
More alarming still is the Congressman's pronouncement that over 60 percent of noncommunist countries' supply of cobalt comes from a single mine in Zaire's Shaba Province -- an area plagued by guerrilla uprisings and instability. The US imports over 90 percent of its cobalt, a critical element in the manufacture of jet-aircraft engines.
The Soviet Union, on the other hand, has its own reserves of the mineral. The American government is supposed to maintain stockpiles of key commodities for use in a national emergency. But, according to Mr. Santini, stockpiles of strategic minerals are woefully inadequate.
Some experts argue that much of the concern over strategic minerals is unwarranted. They point out that minerals will still be in place after any amount of civil unrest, and that most governments, especially in developing African countries, will need to sell those minerals to earn foreign exchange. Consequently, they argue, any cutoff of supplies to the US is unlikely.
But others retort that such reasoning overlooks the possibility of extortionate price-fixing or the formation of "mineral cartels" similar to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Moreover, the mere disruption of supplies of strategic minerals works to the Soviet Union's advantage, a some argue.
And a military official in Zaire claims that the last disruption of Zaire's production -- caused by an invasion of Shaba Province by guerrillas based in the Soviet client state of Angola -- resulted in huge price increases for Russian cobalt.
To make certain that dependence on foreign minerals does not endanger US defenses or its economic well-being, President Carter ordered a "national nonfuel minerals study" in 1977. Congressman Santini labels the preliminary report -- produced after consultations with some 14 federal agencies and the expenditure of $3 million -- "a whitewash."
The question of mineral supply demands greater government concern, private sector involvement, and consideration in the formulation of US foreign policy, he says.