The government's year-long campaign against dissidents shows signs of entering a new phase. Ministers appear confident that their ''cordon and search'' operation in the western city of Bulawayo at the weekend has flushed out significant numbers of bandits and weaponry. And in the surrounding areas of Matabeleland, weeks of fierce action by the security forces have clearly given them the upper hand.
But the government's apparent determination to secure a military solution to the nation's divisions is creating bitterness and enmity among the minority Ndebele.
The moderate supporters of Joshua Nkomo, the leading Ndebele and former guerrilla ally of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, are being forced to take sides against the government. At present there are still four ministers and several deputy-ministers holding office in the Mugabe government who are members of Nkomo's ZAPU party. But as conditions deteriorate in the west, speculation is growing that some may quit and take to the political wilderness.
Some of the more optimistic politicians here speak of a new political initiative to establish some kind of federal links that would give the Ndebele minority a substantial element of autonomy. But the frequent calls by government ministers for action to ''liquidate'' the ''dissident infrastructure'' - a reference to ZAPU - suggests that it is too late for such a solution.
Meanwhile, tensions between government supporters and Mr. Nkomo are increasing.
At a midnight news conference Sunday, Mr. Nkomo emerged briefly from his ''safe house'' in Bulawayo to tell foreign newsmen that his house had been ransacked and his driver killed by troops from the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. He accused Prime Minister Mugabe, who is currently attending the nonaligned summit in New Delhi, of ordering his death.
''Absolute nonsense,'' responded a government spokesman in Harare.
''The man's mad,'' said Emerson Munangagwa, minister of state for security.
Addressing political rallies around the country, other ministers kept up the pressure on the beleaguered Nkomo and ZAPU. It might be necessary to ban the party, warned Maurice Nyagumbo, minister of mines and No. 3 in the ruling hierarchy.
''Nkomo is public enemy No. 1,'' said Enos Nkala, minister of national supplies.
And a government spokesman predicted that Nkomo would face charges in the light of evidence provided by captured dissidents.
The dissidents are mainly former members of Nkomo's ZIPRA guerrilla army, which was disbanded after independence three years ago when most of its members were ''integrated'' into the Zimbabwe Army. For the past year, the dissidents have been conducting a hit-and-run bush campaign mainly against civilians. More than 120 civilians have been killed. And seven whites kidnapped in July last year and over Christmas still are unaccounted for.
This year the Mugabe government hit back hard, endeavoring to crush the militant young Ndebele who owe political allegiance to Nkomo's ZAPU and who have never really accepted the sweeping electoral victory won by Mugabe in the independence elections three years ago. There have been many reports in the foreign news media of brutal tactics used by the Fifth Brigade in carrying out this crackdown.
These accusations have been strongly denied by government spokesmen, who point at the lack of firsthand evidence of any atrocities. Church and welfare organizations that spoke out against the white minority government of Rhodesia and provided detailed reports of atrocities committed by the white forces in the 1970s have not produced any such similar evidence now.
Despite this, there is concern in business quarters here that the American aid program of $75 million to Zimbabwe in 1983-84 could be jeopardized if the human-rights lobby in Congress lines up with conservative opponents of the socialist-inclined Mugabe administration.
In addition, the medium-term economic ill-effects are likely to be severe, since all the adverse publicity that Zimbabwe is now attracting is expected to further deter the foreign investment that the country needs. To make matters worse, the economy is facing a very difficult year at the end of a summer described by farmers as the worse drought in living memory.