A small but politically involved number of black and white Zimbabweans are privately expressing deep concern about the consequences that full international sanctions against South Africa may have for this east-central African country and neighboring states. ``If the world brings sanctions against South Africa, we may suffer. We have suffered before,'' says one Zimbabwean street vendor. ``But the world will help us with money and we will bring all our goods through Mozambique. We don't need South Africa.''
Statements such as this often reflect the fiery rhetoric that the Zimbabwean government is increasingly voicing against white-ruled South Africa, since that country's President, Pieter W. Botha, declared a state of emergency last week.
But the street vendor's statement regarding Zimbabwe's ability, through international support, to survive without using South African transport routes, reflects wishful thinking, say some observers.
A series of interviews with Western diplomats and Zimbabwean officials and private citizens indicate strong fears that any South African retaliatory measures to international pressure would have serious economic and political effects for the ``front-line'' states -- seven southern African states which depend, in varying degrees, on South Africa for economic stability.
More than 90 percent of Zimbabwe's trade -- some 5 million tons of imports and exports -- must pass through South Africa's road and rail routes. Those interviewed say the Pretoria regime could bring Zimbabwe to its knees in a matter of months, perhaps weeks. South Africa could easily pass off the cost of economic sanctions to the front-line states, they add.
``It is quite simple. If we cannot get our goods out, our economy will collapse,'' notes a prominent black businessman, who asked not to be quoted by name. Last year, a leading black industrialist was severely reprimanded by the Zimbabwean government for publicly questioning sanctions and their possible consequences.
``It is very clear that the Botha regime can, and has used . . . transport as a major weapon against these states,'' warns a British diplomat. Britain, South Africa's largest trading partner, is opposed to sanctions against South Africa. By closing frontier points, the diplomat adds, ``the South Africans could force Zimbabwean factories, companies, and farms to shut down. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans would find themselves out of jobs. It could prove catastrophic.''
Some observers also point to the danger of social and political instability, including the possibility of a military coup d''etat, were Zimbabwe to suffer such deterioration. ``I don't think the Zimbabwean government would be prepared to accept the risk of mass unemployment in urban areas,'' says one businessman.
At present, the only alternative transport route is the road, rail, and pipeline links to Beira in Mozambique. But Beira, note Zimbabwean transport managers, cannot take more than 15 to 20 percent of Zimbabwe's traffic.
Observers note that Zimbabwe and other front-line states have always felt that they themselves are not in the position to apply sanctions, and that their appeals for international measures present a serious dilemma.
Politicians and various newspaper editorials here have accused Western nations, notably the United States, Britain, France, and West Germany, of hypocrisy for not chastising Pretoria.
But, according to Western European diplomats, some Cabinet ministers privately indicate hopes that full sanctions will not be imposed. ``They believe that some psychological action must be taken, but they are counting on the Thatcher and Reagan vetoes [at the UN] to block the full impact of sanctions,'' says one diplomat. ``But it is a very dangerous gamble.''
Among many European observers, there is considerable doubt that sanctions will ever be effective. And, despite positions supporting sanctions, there is a consensus that they could prove more harmful to Zimbabwe and the front-line states than to South Africa. But, as one Scandinavian official noted, ``we must look at the long-term effects rather than the short term. We believe that this is worth the sacrifice.''
Some observers point out, however, that many governments advocating sanctions have nothing at stake. ``They may be genuinely concerned,'' says one West European, ``but they're also out to a political free lunch. If Zimbabwe collapses, they lose nothing.''