Rhodesia's economy is set for long-delayed takeoff

The white businessman's attitude toward Rhodesia's economic future is mixed despite the fact that worldwide economic sanctions have been lifted and internationally recognized independence (as the new state of Zimbabwe) is in sight.

"We are all set to take off [economically]," he says optimistically. But, a few sentences later, he speaks gloomily of "this cloud of Marxism hanging over the horizon somewhere. . . ."

His remarks are indicative of the curious mix of opinions that is surfacing in the business community here in the wake of the election of Robert G. Mugabe -- a self-proclaimed Marxist -- as prime minister. It is almost as if business leaders keep two pairs of glasses on hand -- a rose-tinted pair to view the possibilities of unfettered trade, and a dark, cloudy pair to contemplate the prospect of Mr. Mugabe eventually creating a Marxist state.

Despite Mr. Mugabe's moderate statements since winning last month's elections , many businessmen say they are wary about the long-term future of private businesses here.

"If he would just come out and say he's not a Marxist," says one company executive, predicting that single statement would spark off a new wave of private investment.

In fact, the word "Marxism" does not appear at all in the campaign manifesto of Mr. Mugabe's party. And he has been careful to say that he is a "realist" who recognizes that the country now has a capitalist economy that cannot be changed overnight. But his earlier espousals of Marxism -- especially during his five-year exile from the country -- still ring in the ears of many whites.

One manufacturing executive says he hears "quite general talk among the whites that they can see what's going to happen to the country, and they're going to get out."

As one young white man states it, "A leopard doesn't change his spots. Mugabe is a communist."

As much as Mr. Mugabe might wish to counter such pronouncements with reassurances for whites, he is facing a black electorate that expects major changes in their economic lot after independence.

"There could well be a crisis of expectations," says one well-placed observer.

But some private-sector leaders apparently think they can blunt the drive for widespread nationalization of industries by improving pay scales and working conditions, and by giving workers a greater role in business decisionmaking.

Some companies reportedly are planning to expand programs that give employees bonuses tied to corporate profits: the higher the profit, the larger the bonus.

Other executives are studying British models for expanding worker participation in business decisionmaking, while at the same time trying to avoid the problems of Britain's sluggish, strike-prone nationalized industries.

The moves are less altruistic than self-protective: Business leaders realize that if they do not move quickly, Mr. Mugabe might be forced to take more drastic action to satisfy black aspirations.

James van Heerden, executive director of the Association of Chambers of Commerce of Zimbabwe Rhodesia (ACCOR), notes, "If we don't see the problems, the imperatives which are inherent in the statements and attitudes that have been expressed by him [Mr. Mugabe], then we've only got ourselves to blame if he makes a grandstand play."

But will the private sector here respond fast enough? One influential businessman says he finds some promising signs.

Chief among them is a turnover at the upper echelons of many companies here, which has seen the eclipse of many of the hardline conservatives who supported former Prime Minister Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1966.

"You've got new thinking," he says, "which is not so prejudiced and frightened. Fear was the thing behind UDI."

This business leader adds that many of his associates are willing to experiment, to find ways of increasing workers' income while still keeping their companies competitive. If the future Zimbabwe founders economically, he says, "It won't be for lack of trying on my part, and my colleagues' part."

Mr. van Heerden echoes that sentiment, adding that business people here know they are under pressure.

"The mood," he says, "is one of, 'We'll move forward.'" "But," he adds, "we'll keep one eye over our shoulder."

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