Mugabe backs off threat to Zimbabwe white opposition

Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's threat to politically weaken Zimbabwe's white minority has been pushed to the back burner. In recent weeks, Joshua Nkomo and his opposition party have been taking all the heat. Moves to amend the British-inspired 1979 Constitution have been conspicuously absent since the country's recent elections, suggesting that Mr. Mugabe has backed away from his earlier threats to abolish the 20 seats in Parliament constitutionally reserved for whites.

Instead, Mugabe has been intensifying government harassment of Mr. Nkomo and the opposition party he leads, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). (Related story on Nkomo's plight, Page 12.)

Replying to questions last week on the future of white representation, the prime minister described this representation as a ``burden'' which could not be allowed to continue, adding that the matter would be tackled ``when the time came.''

Analysts here take that to mean that the issue has been put aside while the government focuses on what it considers to be the altogether more important problem of ZAPU.

During and immediately after the elections held seven weeks ago, Mugabe was clearly surprised and angered at white support for former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith's Conservative Alliance, which won 15 of the 20 reserved seats. Before becoming independent in 1980, Zimbabwe had been known as Rhodesia and was governed by Mr. Smith's minority white government.

Last week's reference to dealing with the white seats ``when the time came'' may well mean that the government has decided to wait until 1987 when the seats can be abolished constitutionally -- provided such legislation is supported by 70 of the 100 members of Parliament.

Mugabe has 64 votes already and can probably count on most, if not all, of the votes of the 16 black opposition MPs. For them to support privileged representation for the whites, who number only 100,000 in Zimbabwe, would leave them vulnerable to political attack from the government. A decade ago there were 275,000 whites in the country.

It seems likely, then, that the white seats will remain intact for another two years at least -- and possibly longer, given the government's preoccupation with crushing ZAPU. In the meantime, some whites, alarmed at the apparent black backlash created by Smith's convincing election victory, have circulated a petition calling for the abolition of the special white-voters election and its replacement by a common election.

There is little evidence that this move is attracting much support, since it is widely seen as blatantly opportunistic. If the sponsors had raised the suggestion before the elections, it is probable the idea would have gained more support.

Mugabe's surprising decision to dismiss the non-political former agriculture minister, Denis Norman -- a man widely respected both at home and abroad -- has been poorly received.

In announcing his decision, the prime minister went out of his way to praise Mr. Norman's cabinet record, but indicated that he still felt it politically expedient to drop one of his most competent advisers.

It is widely rumored here that Norman will join an international agency as an agricultural expert.

Even if, as seems increasingly probable, white representation is retained for at least another two years, it seems clear that government reaction to the election results has had a marked impact on the nation's white community. There is even greater reluctance than before to criticize the government.

Last month when Finance Minister Bernard Chidzero introduced a budget that failed to tackle the country's serious long-run unemployment problems, business leaders fell over one another to welcome it as ``fair and realistic.''

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