Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Mugabe has taken a calculated risk to maintain the political power for guiding his young country through its growing pains. His drastic governmental shakeup this week could cause apprehension and dissension destructive of the very unity he proclaims. But, if he builds on the plainly positive elements in the shuffle, he could resume what has been, by and large, a leader's painstaking response to a delicate national situation.
Part of this situation has been the strain between Mr. Mugabe and his former fellow rebel chieftain, Joshua Nkomo, who became both his political rival and governmental coalition partner when Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe. Now Mr. Mugabe cites the discovery of an ominous cache of Soviet-made arms and alleged Nkomo overtures to South Africa for aid against the Mugabe party. He ousts Mr. Nkomo and some other members of his minority party from the government.
This can be seen as a personal power play by Mr. Mugabe, a step toward the one-party state that he favors contrary to Zimbabwe's emerging democracy. But at least nominally he was eliminating individuals and not Nkomo party members as such. Indeed, two of the latter were allowed to stay. And the action came after Mr. Mugabe was said to have sought to merge the two parties.
To give him the benefit of the doubt, Mr. Mugabe is trying to unify Zimbabwe's political forces for legitimate uses even as clashing segments of former guerrilla groups have been brought together in the military. He raises questions by calling back into the government, as minister of home affairs, a volatile ideologue who had been understandably left out in the cold. He raises hopes by naming to the ministry of finance and economic planning a pragmatic professional well regarded by the business community.
The economy, of course, is another part of the delicate situation in Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe must respond to the aspirations of 7 million newly liberated black citizens for a fair share in their country's farming and mining riches. Yet most economic control still resides among some 200,000 whites. The productivity of their large farms, for example, cannot be lost sight of as pressures mount for distribution of land to rural blacks on marginal plots. So far, as in the recent rejection of some squatters' claims, there have been encouraging signs of maintaining the rule of law. At the same time, thousands of black families have legally found homes on abandoned white lands. Consistent support for the rule of law is one way that Mr. Mugabe can bolster confidence as change goes forward.
Complicating Zimbabwe's progress is its dependence on a hostile South Africa. This was dramatized last year when South Africa terminated a trade agreement and temporarily withdrew 25 loaned locomotives.
As in many countries freshly coping with independence, this is a time when Zimbabwe especially needs the good offices of neighbors and lands farther away, too. Private investors get encouraging signals when the United States, for example, follows through on its currently pledged aid of $75 million a year. They need from Mr. Mugabe continued evidence that his calculated risks are for the sake of his country and not just himself.