The lesson of Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe. The word does more than ringingly affirm the emergence of a proud, newly independent African nation. It suggests a helpful lesson for the world. The lesson, so easily forgotten in the daily turbulence of events, that the worst is not inevitable. Through the haze of human passions and fears, where the cause is just, the light of sanity can and does break through.

But, as Zimbabwe tells us also, it takes patient fortitude to see a problem through to its rightful end. The temptation is often to settle for less.

Thus, we recall ow frustrated the West was by the long and violent conflict in former Rhodesia. Sympathy was largely on the side of the blacks, fighting for their freedo7; yet there was sympathy, too, for the whites, whose pioneering courage and vision had built a flourishing nation. When, after so many efforts at peace had failed and an "internal settlement" brought black leader Bishop Muzorewa to power, the tendency among some in the West was to supprt the new coalition government. The unyielding struggle of the black Patriotic Front was dismissed as the deviish work of the Soviet Union that ought to be resisted. If the black guerrilla leaders came to power, it was argued, it would be only a matter of time before all southern Africa would fall to communism.

Even at the time soberer voices saw this as a simplistic view. The remarkable events since have borne them out. Far from dropping into the laps of the Russians, Zimbabwe's new leader, Robert Mugabe, gives every promise of steering the country down an independent, nonaligned path. A democratic path, moreover, in which blacks and whites will work together. Mr. Mugabe has done more than merely appoint whites to sensitive Cabinet posts and assure them he will not expropriate their land. Most important, he has taken care to set a tone of genuine reconciliation in Zimbabwe. Consider these healing words addressed to whites and the independence ceremonies a week ago:

"If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend and ally with the same national interest, loyalty, rights and duties as myself. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you. . . The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten."

Or these words intended for blacks: "An evil remains an evil whether practiced by white against black or by black against white. Our majority rule could easily turn into inhuman rule if we oppressed, persecuted, or harassed those who do not look or think like the majority of us."

If is in fact Prime Minister Mugabe's uplifting words and reasonable actions in recent weeks that have led Western diplomats to characterize his election as a solid setback for the Soviet Union. One high US official terms it "the greatest reverse the Russians have suffered in Africa in years." The expectation is that, with the West's judicious economic support, Mr. Mugabe could emerge as the most forceful leader in Africa, helping by his nonaligned policies to stem any Soviet tide. What a far cry from earlier Western apprehensions that his rule would be tantamount to a Russian suzerainty (even though his support came from Peking rather than Moscow).

This is not to close one's eyes to the uncertainties ahead. Mr. Mugabe is an avowed Marxist and it is not yet clear how he intends to blend his leftist ideology with the nation's present capitalist system. No one can say for sure that his magnanimous attitude toward whites is not a temporary phenomenon dictated by economic expediency. He confronts, moreover, formidable problems -- building a unified army, resettling thousands of refugees, restoring a shattered economy. The test of leadership has yet to come.

Yet the uncertainties cannot obscure the falsity of yesterday's fear and the promise of today's beginnings. By everything he has so far done and said, Mr. Mugabe gives reason to believe he does not want entanglements with Moscow. Rather he seeks a moderate, pragmatic course that will make possible a just society for both races, without shackling ties to East or West. The wisdom of helping him in this course -- and learning the lesson of Zimbabwe's struggle -- is self-evident.

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