Zimbabwe grumbles as it finds itself face to face with austerity

The benefits of Zimbabwe's independence honeymoon are fading away. It is a new experience for the administration of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, which took office in March 1980, to have to tell its followers that belt-tightening will be in order for 1983.

What makes things particularly difficult is that the new austere policies follow closely on the publication of an ambitious ''transitional development plan'' envisaging investment of nearly $7 billion over the next three years.

It is all the more unpalatable because the policy switch underlines what analysts have been warning against: a crisis of ''unfulfilled expectations'' ever since the government took office. It had pledged far-reaching social and economic reforms that would improve the lot of the man in the street.

The Mugabe government's achievements are impressive enough. It can boast a 140 percent increase in school enrollment, up to 2.2 million in 1982 from 893, 000 in 1979. In the first two years of independence the economy grew at an average annual rate of 15 percent (in real terms). Employment rose by more than 60,000 jobs while the real minimum wage increased more than 45 percent.

Nevertheless, these impressive achievements fall short of expectations. Businessmen and diplomats feel that Zimbabwe failed to generate the overseas investment that might have come its way.

Militants argue that Mr. Mugabe's socialism is in danger of being blown off course by conservative policies forced on the prime minister by the world recession and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Zimbabwe officials have been talking to the IMF in the wake of the country's 20 percent devaluation of the Zimbabwe dollar. The government's recent decision to reduce the subsidy on maize meal - the staple food - and increase the consumer price by more than 30 percent was quickly followed by the reimposition of the wage freeze and an announcement that there will be no year-end increase in minimum wages, which will now be reviewed only in mid-1983.

For some, the measure that has been the toughest to take has been what critics call a return to the community school plan of the former white government. Recently, a number of Zimbabwe schools - those that were all white until 1979 - announced plans to impose a levy on parents to help finance school costs.

Some black parents saw this as a back-door method of minimizing black enrollments and forcing black parents to send their children to rural schools, where standards are lower. Some complained this was a departure from the policy of free education.

All this underlines the need to adjust policies to a changed economic situation. The IMF and the government's own economic advisers are telling Mr. Mugabe that public expenditure must be cut, interest rates kept high, and wages and consumer spending kept under control.

Inflation has averaged 16 percent this year. As the impact of devaluation, higher electricity tariffs, and the phasing down of subsidies is increasingly felt, inflation will push above 20 percent in the first half of 1983. If devaluation is to succeed, domestic costs must be contained. This means restrictive policies will be in order throughout 1983.

It is doubtful whether this change of economic direction will have a serious political impact on the Mugabe government, largely because there is no political opposition to exploit it. Of course, the swing to austerity is music to some white ears, as former Prime Minister Ian Smith has been quick to acknowledge.

Perhaps the greatest political threat will come from radicals and hard-liners dismayed at policy changes being forced on the government by the IMF and the banks. Militants say that this merely underlines Zimbabwe's failure to socialize its economy and break away from Western-style capitalist domination.

However, this militant stance overlooks the realities of the world recession and Zimbabwe's heavy reliance on South Africa.

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