Zimbabwe verdict could boost white exodus

The verdict was "not guilty." Acquittal of Edgar Tekere, manpower minister of Zimbabwe, on a charge of murder, is expected to have a major impact on this struggling nation in the weeks ahead.

Already, whites are expressing serious misgivings.

Mr. Tekere was charged with killing a white Zimbabwe farmer last August. Although his defense lawyers had confidently predicted in advance that Tekere would be acquitted, the court verdict of Dec. 7 came as a shock to many whites here.

There was jubilation, however, from the black manpower minister's relatives and supporters when white Judge John Pitman announced that he had been overruled by two assessors, Chris Greenland, of mixed race, and Peter Nemapara, a black. (Judge Pitman's view was that Mr. Tekere and one of his bodyguards should be found guilty of murder.)

But the assessrs found that Mr. Tekere and his seven young bodyguards were covered by 1975 legislation protecting them against prosecution for having acted to "suppress terrorism."

Ironically, Mr. Tekere and his bodyguards won their freedom as a result of sweeping anti-terrorism legislation introduced by former white Prime Minister Ian Smith five years ago to protect politicians and Cabinet ministers from court action during the guerrilla war with black Rhodesian nationalists.

The legislation was passed to foil attempts by human-rights activists to prosecute the government and Army for incidents in which civilians died "in crossfire" during the hostilities. Judge Pitman told the court in a 60-minute judgement that in his view both Mr. Tekere and one of the bodyguards should have been found guilty of murder, but under Zimbabwe's legal system the judge was overruled by his two assessors.

Immediately after the verdict was passed, Mr. Tekere, whose personal prestige has been boosted by the whole affair, sharply criticized the judge for finding him guilty.

The minister said Zimbabwe would have to "go a long way" to achieve justice "as long as we have men on the bench like this" (a reference to Judge Pitman).

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's white minority of 200,000 persons is almost certain to be unhappy at the verdict, though there will be those who argue that a Tekere acquittal in the courts was preferable to a political pardon -- which was considered a possibility -- had the verdict gone against the Cabinet minister.

Some whites are likely to use the acquittal verdict as a justification for joining the already-substantial exodus from Zimbabwe, currently running at 18, 000 a year.

But business leaders are more concerned at whether Mr. Tekere's radicalism will carry greater weight in economic decisionmaking than in the actual merits and demerits of the court finding.

Businessmen in general believe that an acquittal will do less to discourage foreign investment in Zimbabwe than a political pardon would have done. Diplomats believe that the court verdict is unlikely to have any impact at all on levels of economic aid from Western countries.

For Prime Minister Mugabe, himself, the Tekere verdict could well mean a new and severe problem, in the sense of strengthening radical opinion within the government and within the party.

The trial that had threatened to end Mr. Tekere's career as a politician now looks to have boosted his prospects for future promotion. Already he ranks No. 3 in the ruling ZANU-PF Party behind Prime Minister Mugabe and Foreign Minister and Vice-Premier Simon Muzenda. As secretary-general of ZANU-PF, he holds a key position in the party hierarchy which strengthens his political base.

He has a reputation as a hard-line radical who wants to see the government implement socialist policies faster and more thoroughly than Mr. Mugabe hitherto has been willing to do.

Thus, the Tekere acquittal will terminate the comfortable scenario for Zimbabwe's immediate future that has been expounded in Salisbury by Western diplomats. They have been predicting that early in the new year Mr. Mugawe would reshuffle his Cabinet, demoting radical elements such as Finance Minister Enos Nkala, Mines Minister Maurice Nyagumbo, Mr. Tekere, and Health Minister Herbert Ushewokunze.

This scenario has never seemed particularly convincing, but now that Mr. Tekere has emerged triumphant from the trial with his political base enormously strengthened, it is the moderates in the ZANU-PF Party who have more to fear from any Cabinet reshuffle that might be forthcoming.

The acquittal will bring no comfort to Mr. Mugabe's partner in the leadership of the guerrilla war and present rival for power, Joshua Nkomo. Mr. Nkomo heads the Patriotic Front (ZAPU) wing of the coalition government and is minister of home affairs. Mr. Tekere has been outspoken in his criticism of the burly Mr. Nkomo and his followers, and a sharpening of such verbal attacks would come as no surprise.

At the time of Mr. Tekere's arrest, political analysts here argued that if the minister emerged victorious from the court action -- as he has done -- his political importance would be likely to increase very considerably, indeed. Always a popular figure with the former guerrillas, he has the added attraction, politically, of having taken on the legal establishment and the police on their own ground and won.

For a man who two months ago told Parliament that he was "a rogue" whose rightful place was in prison, this is no mean achievement.

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