The Reagan administration faces tests in four mineral-rich but turbulent parts of southern Africa -- Angola, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. All four offer opportunities for constructive diplomacy. But in none, perhaps, are the chances for the United States to help build a more prosperous life for the people and a more cooperative government-to-government relationship greater than in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia.
That is, unless the current factional fighting deteriorates into a major breakdown of law and order in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe's leaders are self-avowed socialists, but they also are proving to be pragmatists. With their country heavily damaged after seven years of war, they are actively courting American investment on terms that seem reasonable.
Experts describe the economy of this new nation of 7.5 million people as among the most diversified and best balanced in Africa. Members of the international banking community who know Zimbabwe say that, unlike some African nations where the practice of demanding bribes is widespread, it holds the attraction of being relatively free of corruption.
For those who are concerned about Soviet influence in southern Africa, Zimbabwe offers considerable comfort. Soviet influence does not amount to much there. The Soviets backed the wrong faction during the war and they have yet to establish an embassy in Salisbury, the capital.
The US State Department has proposed $75 million in economic aid to Zimbabwe for fiscal 1982, a threefold increase. But with the new administration and Congress inclined to cut foreign aid, the fate of the proposed increase is uncertain.
American businessmen are taking a wait- and-see attitude toward Zimbabwe. But one of the men to whom they tend to listen with respect is Bernard Chidzero, Zimbabwe's minister for economic planning and development.
The articulate Mr. Chidzero was in Washington a few days ago, impressing bureaucrats, businessmen, and congressmen with his knowledge and candor. Chidzero may be part of a socialist leadership, but he apparently does not look to socialist countries as models for economic development.
Mr. Chidzero, who was until last year deputy secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, has just taken a look at the Canadian government's investments in economic development. He also wants to study economic development in Australia, hardly a radical country. And he admires certain aspects of what has been done in Malaysia and Singapore, both nations where capitalism thrives.
Chidzero notes that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was once considered a radical leftist but that this did not deter him from going on in pragmatic fashion to build a powerful economy for his island nation.
The minister says his government does intend to increase its role in the Zimbabwe economy but not for ideological reasons. It must to do this, he says, in order to help bridge the gap between Zimbabwe's relatively few prosperous citizens, most of them whites, and its rural poor. It has no intention of nationalizing private enterprises but must play a role in, among other things, the purchase of land. Such purchases would be restricted, in the initial stages at least, to uncultivated lands, and would be conducted on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis.
The largest American investor in Zimbabwe, the Union Carbide Corporation, had been expanding its two mining complexes and its ferrochromium smelter plant in Zimbabwe. But most potential investors from the US have been reticent, for a combination of reasons. These include and underlying uncertainty about the stability of the new Zimbabwe government and concern that the current pragmatism of the government may prove only transitory. Businessmen have noted with some alarm Zimbabwe government proposals to form a state trading corporation for mineral export.
Businessmen with experience in Zimbabwe also have been concerned about a major clash that occurred last year at the southeastern city of Bulawayo between guerrilla forces of the government's two leading political factions. Their concern has grown with the rebellion and fighting that have erupted in the same area over the past few days.
United Press International reported on Feb. 12 that government troops had clashed with rebel tanks on the outskirts of Bulawayo. Guerrilla forces loyal to former Home Affairs Minister Joshua Nkomo were reported to be converging on Bulawayo from several directions in a bid to size the city and m ake it the rebel capital.