Zimbabwe calmer as violence drops off and parties enter 'unity talks'

Zimbabwe's recently violent political waters appear to have calmed - at least temporarily - to a chop. Despite the weekend killing of a white farmer in western Matabeleland, several signs point to a lessening of violence in that troubled region and to efforts by both Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's government and the opposition Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) to bridge their considerable differences. These signs include:

* A resumption of telecommunication projects in Matabeleland because bandit activity and civilian harassment appear to have decreased in recent months. Reports of these changes were made by Information Minister Nathan Shamuyarira in a Harare newspaper.

* ''Unity talks'' going on between senior party officials in ZAPU and Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

* Dropping of charges against 10 men held by the government since last year in connection with arms caches uncovered on property associated with ZAPU.

It is too early to tell whether these signs signal any strong trend toward improvement here. But it is certainly true that all available evidence points to a substantial reduction in violence and bandit activity. And the fact that ZANU-ZAPU talks are taking place at all is a plus. The talks suggest that the ruling party acknowledges the need for some kind of political solution to the present rift between the two major groups.

What is unclear is how far the existing domestic ZAPU leadership - those taking part in the unity talks - reflects grass-roots opinion, especially within Matabeleland. The question is whether the domestic ZAPU leadership will manage to agree on a ''merger'' as distinct from what the Ndebele within Matabeleland fear may be a ZANU ''takeover'' of ZAPU. Even if agreement is secured, some wonder, will the ZAPU rank and file go along with the deal?

If the ZAPU hierarchy has lost control of its young radicals and militants, then it could well be that any merger agreement won't get off the ground. This is particularly likely should Joshua Nkomo, the ZAPU leader who is in exile in Britain, decide to disown any deal that might be reached and stay in exile. Mr. Nkomo could lose his seat in Parliament unless he returns to Zimbabwe within 21 days of the new parliamentary session, which starts next month.

Ndebele dissidents are not the only problem facing Prime Minister Mugabe. His critics at home and abroad say the use of the emergency powers regulations to detain people acquitted in the courts is generating a negative image in countries where human rights issues are taken seriously.

Last month, six supporters of Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU were redetained by police immediately after their acquittal in the high court on charges of treason and unlawful possession of arms. The six included Dumiso Dabengwa, formerly intelligence chief in Nkomo's ZIPRA guerrilla army during the independence war.

Mr. Dabengwa is seen by some political analysts here as the most logical successor to Nkomo, if Nkomo stays in Britain. Dabengwa's continued detention can only raise further doubts in the minds of ZAPU supporters over the ruling ZANU party's long-term plans for the country.

Political observers say that Prime Minister Mugabe could rebuild some of his political fences in Matabeleland if he rededicates himself to reconciliation before elections, which are 18 months away. But it is widely acknowledged that this would not be an easy task considering the ill feeling engendered in the province by recent events there.

At any rate, the sense of calm and the political talks have come just when they were needed. Diplomats here say that US congressmen have been asking awkward questions about the Zimbabwe government's human rights record. Any further adverse publicity at a time when Congress is considering the $75 million aid appropriation would have been most unfortunate.

In weighing the dispute between ZANU and ZAPU, however, it would be shortsighted to ignore the weaknesses of the dissident position. Those creating the violence in Matabeleland are a small minority. There is little evidence of popular support for them among a people tired of war and anxious about the more mundane issues, such as food - after two years of severe drought - education, health, and jobs.

And at most, the Ndebele represent no more than 16 percent of the total population. They could, of course, turn into a troublesome minority, as have some minorities elsewhere in Africa.

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