Red flags flew. Youth brigades clasping wooden Kalashnikov rifles performed paramilitary displays and North Korean advisers madly waved signals to the cardholders flashing party slogans: ``Long live ZANU-PF,'' ``Socialist ideology,'' and ``Crush dissidents!'' Rufaro National Stadium, on the outskirts of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, was jam-packed for the celebration. Apart from foreign dignitaries, there were few whites. Many of Zimbabwe's largely entrepreneurial 100,000 remaining white citizens have adapted to life under black rule, but celebrating socialism's rise is not their idea of a holiday.
There also seemed to be little enthusiasm for ideology among blacks in the crowd.
``Most people come for the spectacle and the dancing, not for the politics,'' a young Zimbabwean medical student explained at the time. ``In the beginning, we were excited by independence, but now many are tired of this political talk. We just want jobs and better lives.''
The country's sixth Independence Day celebration recently was perhaps an illustrative introduction to a reporter's visit. But only with regard to the nation's ideological veneer.
Among African nations, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), an alluring country of high-plateau tea plantations, middle-level corn and tobacco belts, and lowland cattle ranches and bush wildernesses, faces unique challenges.
Since independence in 1980, the country has been looked upon as a land of promise -- not only as a potential economic powerhouse in the region, but also as a possible example of racial harmony for blacks and whites in South Africa.
Zimbabwe, however, has serious shortcomings: An annual 3.5 percent population growth, rising unemployment, and a gradual deterioration of human rights are but a few. At the same time, the country boasts: a multiracial society with a sophisticated infrastructure that sets it apart from other black African countries; a nearly self-sufficient economy; excellent roads and railways; first-world businesses, industries, and mines; and above all, the ability to feed itself and export surpluses.
Nevertheless, this state of 8.4 million people represents a host of contradictions. The most notable is that Zimbabwe, though a self-declared ``socialist'' state, depends on an ebullient capitalist economy for survival.
Some of the more radical ideologues in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union -- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), regularly voice harsh Marxist-Leninist or anticolonialist sentiments. Not everyone agrees with them. Many Zimbabweans fear that such diatribes hurt the country's image, and scare off needed foreign investment and aid.
And, last week's cutoff of all US aid to Zimbabwe may be the most significant realization, to date, of such fears.
The Reagan administration halted aid, according to observers, because of what it sees as Zimbabwe's lack of diplomacy in relations with the US.
Three issues the US was unhappy with pushed the administration to this decision: a document, highly critical of the US, prepared by Zimbabwe for a summit of the ``nonaligned'' movement; anti-US rhetoric espoused by Prime Minister Mugabe at the summit; and Mugabe's refusal to apologize for anti-US statements made in July by a Zimbabwe foreign ministry spokesman.
Although the Prime Minister has occasionally launched into both Marxist-Leninist and anti-US rhetoric, he has usually, through quiet diplomacy, let it be known that his words should not be confused with his actions. Since assuming power in 1980, he has tended toward a cautious approach toward socialism.
But, observers say that the world's attention to Mugabe's stand on South Africa and his acquisition of the leadership of the nonaligned movement at last week's summit have impelled him to heighten his rhetoric. Much of the current tension between Zimbabwe and the US, in fact, stems from Zimbabwe's ire with the US refusal to impose harsh sanctions on Pretoria.
The extent to which Zimbabwe retains relations with South Africa is, in itself, another paradox here. Despite its condemnation of Pretoria's racist policies, ties include mutual trade missions, transport links, business cooperation, and even border intelligence cooperation.
However, in what some observers see as the government's two boldest moves yet, it has joined five other Commonwealth nations in voting in favor of economic and cultural sanctions against South African, and it has announced that it intends to scrap a trade accord it has had with South Africa since the mid-1960s.
At present, almost 90 percent of Zimbabwe's 5 million-ton-a-year trade must pass through South Africa. Without South Africa's transport services, observers agree, land-locked Zimbabwe's economy would founder. In announcing his intent to scrap the trade agreement, however, Mugabe said that such action would be part of his country's overall sanctions effort. And, analysts note, it is unlikely that the Commonwealth will actually implement the sanctions despite the recent vote by Zimbabwe, Zambia, and four other member nations.
After nearly a century of white rule, black-ruled Zimbabwe has come a long way in its six short years.
As part of his government's socialist platform of ``equitable distribution and growth,'' Mugabe has instituted numerous reforms. Some are considered too ambitious for Zimbabwe's present capabilities. But his efforts to provide education, health care, and broader opportunities for all have made inroads. For many, including whites, living conditions are in certain respects better today than before independence.
``Even if some of the Europeans gripe about the fall in standards or the shortage of foreign exchange, we are not fighting a war,'' says a company director. Without a doubt, one of the most striking achievements is the relative lack of racial tension. Less than seven years since the end of a bitter conflict that claimed some 40,000 lives, there is enormous goodwill.
The government has pushed hard for Africanization. But Mugabe has recognized the need, at least for the time being, to encourage a pluralistic society. Whites still play a pivotal role in keeping the country on its feet.
Scrupulous attention is paid to promoting multiracialism.
``Socialism?'' laughed a businessman, formerly active in the liberation struggle. ``You need a pair of binoculars to find it.''
The image most appealing to the growing black middle class is that of an exuberant Western life style, once enjoyed only by whites. Party activists, however, seem determined to politicize the ``masses.'' Liberation rhetoric still holds sway.
Their efforts are not necessarily popular. But government spokesmen tend to dismiss much of the alleged disenchantment, arguing that it is a matter of education. ``The population was brought up on the racist rhetoric of the past, so we are trying to transform society consistent with our socialist goals,'' said the minister of information.
Much of Zimbabwe's future, observers note, depends on what happens in South Africa, and on whether Mugabe can avoid the pressures of hard-line ideologues. He has been striving for the creation of a one-party state, a concept that draws numerous adherents, including whites.
A strong leadership, supporters of this policy argue, is the only way to preserve political stability. But the extremists are driving for a more radical East-bloc style of control.
The ruling party's seeming contempt for minority opposition has led to a disconcerting rise in repression, including press curbs.
``It is the majority that rules, and we must crush anything that threatens the state,'' a ZANU militant declared recently. Such attitudes have also emerged with the clampdown on public debate over possible consequences of international sanctions against South Africa.
A ministerial director, who requested anonymity, referred to the fears caused by this rhetoric, and said the politicians must ``change what they are saying and the image they want to project of this society. . . . Really, it's a matter of deeds. We should just get on with it.''