Mere months ago no one would have predicted the event beginning today in Rhodesia. At this moment no one is predicting the outcome of that event -- the election of the first majority-rule government for the independent country to be known as Zimbabwe. What can be said is that all parties are participating, that the elections are proceeding on a constitutional basis accepted by all sides, and that they are being overseen by United Nations and other observers to ensure freedom and fairness. What must be avoided is interference from the outside -- such as the feared military intervention by South Africa and Soviet-backed forces if armed turmoil escalates after the balloting.
Candidates and parties have the responsibility of maintaining order among their adherents. This is especially important in view of the possible flare-ups after years of tension and guerrilla warfare. Independence is no guarantee of tranquility, as the American colonists who broke free of Britain could attest. But it should be a bulwark for achieving the self-discipline demanded for self- government.
Commonwealth countries, led by Britain, have helped bring Rhodesia out of its recent status as international pariah. Various African nations and the United States have also played a part. All countries ought to respond to the needs of fledgling Zimbabwe -- if invited to do so. Otherwise, hands off.
Mugabe, Muzorewa, Nkomo -- their parties are the leading contenders for representation among the 80 parliamentary seats reserved for black Rhodesians. The 20 white seats have already gone to the Rhodesian Front Party led by former Prime Minister Ian Smith. Some sort of coalition government could be the outcome.
What happens now will mean much not only to Zimbabwe but to its African neighbors. A demonstration of peaceful change ought not to be lost on those seeking progress in relieving Namibia from South African control and in working toward majority rule in South Africa itself. Without such progress, the agitation against South Africa on the international scene seems certain to grow.
In short, the stakes are high in the process starting in Rhodesia. It calls for gratitude to those who have laid the groundwork and prayerful support for all who are conscientiously taking the risks of freedom.