ZIMBABWE eliminates the last vestiges of white political representation this month, 99 years after Cecil Rhodes established a local legislature controlled by a few thousand conquering settlers. Last month, its parliament overwhelmingly approved the change. Although Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, and Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) has dominated parliament ever since, 20 seats of 100 have been reserved for whites who are elected exclusively by whites. Mr. Mugabe has long threatened he will next create an executive presidency and then a single-party state, probably in 1990.
Many of the leaders of black Africa have favored sole rule by winning political parties since the 1960s, when President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana proclaimed the un-African quality of parliamentary oppositions. He also declared that opposition parties took up too much time with their questions and that the process of national economic development was hindered by their carping complaints.
Mr. Nkrumah's propositions were popular for a decade or more, but a new generation of politicians in both Francophone and English-speaking countries began to deride the hypocrisy, corruption, mismanagement, and distortion of national priorities that became noticeable in many nations without legal opposition. The excesses of the dictatorships of Idi Amin in Uganda, Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Empire, and Francisco Macias Nguema in Equatorial Guinea also helped refocus a new generation of Africans on the legitimacy of the concept and validity of opposition.
Some countries, like Botswana, never lost their acceptance of the value of more than one-party. Others, like Kenya and Zambia, have single party parliaments in which there are internal, sometimes bitter, and (in Kenya) frequently repressed voices of dissent.
Zimbabwe, too, has a constitution which enshrines the Westminster notion of multiple political parties. The ending of reserved seats for whites does not change its formal approach at all. Fifteen of the seats in its parliament are still occupied by adherents of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), the main black opposition party.
Despite Africa's gradual disillusionment with the promise of one-party rule, Mugabe still talks about transforming his nation's legislature into a body occupied only by members of ZANU. At the moment, it is largely controlled by ZANU, but ZAPU, independents, and whites still occasionally speak and criticize.
Mugabe and a few members of his cabinet may be the only prominent Zimbabweans demanding one-party rule and, thus, the end of conventional democracy. Yet Mugabe is a practical man as well as an ideologue.
He recently backed away from a plan to impose sanctions on South Africa when he became persuaded that breaking trade ties with his neighbor to the south would harm Zimbabwe more than impose pressure on apartheid.
Likewise, the decision to create a new form of rule in Zimbabwe also hinges on an appreciation of reality. Zimbabwe, largely well-run and with the best balanced economy in Africa, nevertheless achieved zero economic growth in the 1986-87 fiscal year.
The rains were poor and Zimbabwe's crops produced little surplus for export. Industrial expansion slowed considerably, to a large extent as a result of an acute shortage of foreign exchange. The government was also spending more than it earned, largely due to the cost of a large army and a bloated bureaucracy.
Most of all, Zimbabwe has not yet curbed a population which is expanding at about 3.6 percent a year, the second fastest rate (after Kenya) in Africa and the world. Because of these burgeoning numbers and zero industrial and agricultural growth, Zimbabwe has as many people (slightly more than 1 million) unemployed as employed. Thus its social service needs are great, and expensive.
In order to grow, Zimbabwe needs good rains, lowered trade barriers in its region, foreign aid, and foreign investment. Mugabe's oft-expressed revolutionary rhetoric drives away even the most charitable potential foreign investors, and chills foreign aid, particularly from the United States.
To move ahead with the single-party antithesis of democracy is thus hardly timely. Mugabe's hand will be stayed, but probably not his pronouncements nor, forever, the course he seems determined to impose on his country.
Robert I. Rotberg is academic vice-president for arts, sciences, and technology at Tufts University.