Black-ruled Zimbabwe: a good place for the whites who stayed. Economics, sentiment keep them there - despite friction

Middle-class whites here can afford servants and comfortable suburban bungalows with swimming pools. Overall, the whites in Zimbabwe realize that they would be hard pressed to find another country with an equally attractive life style.

As long as standards in health and security are maintained, they stress, black-majority-ruled Zimbabwe is a good place to live.

``It's frustrating sometimes, but this is our home,'' says Annette Francis. ``We can still give our children a good education and we have one of the best climates in the world. Where else could we go?''

Still, they often seem to be seeking reassurance from visitors that their choice to stay has been a right one.

Nearly 7 years since Zimbabwe's independence, some 100,000 whites out of an original population of an estimated 250,000 remain. This is widely seen as confidence in the future of this African nation, formerly called Rhodesia.

With many opting for Zimbabwean nationality, whites range from bank directors to secretaries. And they include the majority of Zimbabwe's 4,500 commercial farmers, who rank among the best in the world and produce more than one-third of the country's export revenue.

While other black African states rely on costly imported expertise, Zimbabwe's colonial ``immigrant'' element is one of its strongest economic assets.

After five long years of fighting for majority rule, radical members of the new black leadership would have liked nothing better than to kick the whites out at independence in April 1980. But Prime Minister Robert Mugabe kept them on -- for their expertise and their ability to provide jobs and help fund social reforms. Although much of the country's tax base has been lost through emigraton, the whites still represent the most important source of fiscal revenue.

``...if they didn't want us to stay, we wouldn't be here,'' said Mick Townsend of the Central Farmers' Union.

In a startling about face, a growing number of Rhodesian 'emigr'es, particularly those who ended up in South Africa and are of military age, seek to return.

``I just spent two years in South Africa studying, but you can see things turning sour down there. I got my call-up papers, but I've already fought enough [in the Rhodesian war]. I don't want to get caught up in theirs.'' said one young man.

Since independence, most whites have joined the private sector. ``If I were a high school counselor, I would not advise a young white to go into the civil service,'' says a Western diplomat.

According to observers, the civil service is far less efficient today than during the Rhodesian era. Some qualified whites left because of poor pay or discrimination. Some were passed over in promotion in favor of black political appointees.

Nevertheless, say observers, a number of whites remain involved in the Central Intelligence Organization at a very senior level. According to a former police superintendent, this is because they are seen as ``experienced professionals who do their job well.''

Still, there is comparatively little social mixing, and friction between the two races runs high in certain quarters.

Some whites, particularly the older generation, continue to harbor deep bitterness over black rule. At the same time, there is resentment among blacks at the way whites continue to control the economy. Politicians are quick to condemn criticism from the white community as ``racist'' and to blame government shortcomings on the ``colonial'' legacy.

In southern Zimbabwe's Matabeleland, the nation's richest agriculture region, the state of siege has never really ended for most white farmers.

Despite the conditions of white-black relations, one hears little criticism of the prime minister. Many whites consider him to be their best guarantor of a safe future. Most are encouraged by Mugabe's reconciliation efforts and seem committed to taking part in Zimbabwe's growth.

``This country has a tremendous future,'' noted tobacco farmer George Grant. ``I was thinking of leaving because of Marxism, but it didn't turn out that way. We've done well.... But if we're to remain here, we must be productive.''

Mugabe has long maintained that Zimbabwe must be a one-party state, but political parties have not been banned and there are currently eight or more. Though Mugabe is still pursuing a one-party arrangement, his effort has been stymied by a long-standing feud between the two major parties, which are divided largely along tribal lines.

Racial harmony is greater between blacks and whites than between the majority Shona and minority Ndebele tribes.

``Rhodesia never had the kinds of problems you find in South Africa. Even if we did not agree, we always had some form of dialogue,'' maintained Nick O'Connor, who runs a large-scale tobacco, maize, and cattle farm.

Yet most whites remain apprehensive about the future. Events in South Africa forbode tough times ahead. Cynical whites here point to the economic disasters elsewhere on the continent as examples of what South Africans can expect under black rule. The majority, however, are extremely nationalistic and resent what is widely seen as South Africa's efforts to destabilize black-ruled neighbors.

``We should have negotiated much earlier ... some of us realized that black rule was inevitable. We could have done without the war and been at a much better advantage today,'' noted one farmer speaking of the war.

Zimbabwe's whites can expect major constitutional changes this year. Mugabe has already said that he intends to abolish the 20 parliamentary seats reserved for whites under the present political system.

Although they do not want to be left out in the cold, many whites do not necessarily see politics as the best way to represent their interests. The Commercial Farmer's Union and other professional organizations have long been the best platform for expressing their views. As one farmer put it, the parliamentary seats are ``a special status causing us a lot more trouble than its worth.''

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