Zimbabwe is a tropical paradox. Its leaders talk stridently about a leftist future and at the same time run a wholly realistic, pragmatic economy. Since August Zimbabwe has been officially directed down a path toward scientific socialism. A one-party state will also come, in time. Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and his Western-trained colleagues boldly extol the virtues of Eastern, state-centered systems. There is no lack of praise for the theories and concepts popularized by Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin.
No one in Zimbabwe doubts the sincerity of these rhetorical flourishes. They frighten investors and worry the country's rapidly growing indigenous middle class. But, speeches aside, Zimbabwe is being run in a tightfisted, financially orthodox manner. It has conformed to many guidelines of the International Monetary Fund, has reduced most consumer subsidies, and is attempting to maintain the capitalist system that Zimbabwe inherited at independence in 1980 from white settlers.
Zimbabwe's striking success is in agriculture. Of the new nations of Africa, Zimbabwe has a thriving, well-rewarded farming sector. In the years without drought, and even during the past three years of dryness, Zimbabwe fed itself and produced surpluses for export.
More than 65 percent of Zimbabwe's export earnings in 1983-84 were products of the soil. About 4,400 white farmers (down from 5,000 at independence) grew the bulk of the crops involved, but African peasant farmers also began for the first time to respond to Zimbabwe's emphasis on incentive pricing, efficient services, and careful attention to the rural segment of the country.
Most African nations have focused, with disastrous results, on urban consumers. But Zimbabwe, intent upon maximizing its return from the soil, maintaining its food self-sufficiency, and encouraging its growing population to remain country rather than city residents, has to good effect managed to keep the confidence of farmers during three difficult years of drought.
The drought seems to have broken. The Zimbabwean maize upon which much of Africa depends should grow well. The crucial cash commodities -- tobacco, cotton, sugar, and beef -- should also thrive.
Last year, when the rains were limited, Zimbabwe still managed to export Z$636 million. Tobacco was worth Z$350 million; cotton, Z$140 million; sugar, Z$53 million; and beef, Z$53 million. (The Zimbabwe dollar is at 80 US cents.) Africans grew 40 percent of both cotton and beef, and 35 percent of locally consumed maize.
Although the white farmers are still the backbone of the export economy of Zimbabwe, more Africans are entering the cash sector and joining the Commercial Farmers Union (once a white organization) in small numbers.
For the rest of Africa, Zimbabwe's lesson is simple. If prices are attractive, whites and Africans will maximize their own returns by nurturing their cash crops. But monetary incentives (deficient in other parts of Africa) are not enough. The central marketing or produce boards must also provide bags and other means of obtaining and storing the grain, must provide easy methods and reliable ways of collecting crops, and must pay farmers promptly. Zimbabwe pays within two weeks. Even in agriculturally dependent Kenya, there are long delays.
The Zimbabwean farmer benefits from a strong physical and financial infrastructure. He has access to credit, to technical advice, to fertilizer, and to marketing assistance. Other countries in Africa are deficient in these respects, and their farmers either grow only enough for themselves or abandon the rural areas for the cities.
Prime Minister Mugabe has relentlessly pursued a Western-oriented rural policy. He works closely with the commercial farming lobby. Despite pre-independence rhetoric, he has resettled only 30,000 families on formerly white-owned land, and only after willing sales.
In the industrial sector Zimbabwe has been less than successful in attracting new Western investment. Because of tight fiscal controls and a shortage of foreign exchange, this part of the local economy is operating at less than full capacity. The multinational mining and manufacturing companies are hardly happy, particularly since mineral prices have been soft and the government less responsive to their needs than to those of agriculture.
Despite such complaints about a population that could be growing at 4 percent a year, and fear of continued strife between the dominant Shona and the minority Ndebele, Zimbabwe is undoubtedly approaching the problems of a young fragile nation with both realism and a heady, antirealistic rhetoric.
Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.