KUBI INDI always longed for more than her mother's life of selling tomatoes under the hot African sun. So when black rule came to Zimbabwe, Mrs. Indi borrowed $600 to start her own line of Afro-hair shampoos. Today, she is the country's biggest manufacturer of these products - and owner of a four-bedroom house, swimming pool, and sports car.
``I'm living my dreams,'' says the elegantly coiffed Indi. ``If I could make it, anything is possible here.''
Meet the new black middle class in Africa's newest independent nation. They are starting businesses, moving into white-collar professions, becoming bureaucrats. They are buying suburban homes, driving nice cars, taking European vacations. They are out on the golf links and in the best restaurants.
While all this may seem pretty tame in the West, the rags-to-riches tale here represents one of the most dramatic changes since the takeover of white-ruled Rhodesia in 1980. No one has sound statistics on exactly how many blacks have joined the ranks; they clearly still constitute a minority. They do, however, dominate the country's vast civil service, and they are fast emerging as Zimbabwe's most important entrepreneurs.
BEYOND changing people's life styles, the rise of a black middle class is changing the whole social fabric of the country, political observers contend. For starters, these blacks are beginning to wrest the economy from white control.
Eight years after independence, experts figure that about 70 percent of the economy is still in white hands.
Through tenacity and sheer numbers, however, blacks are slowly loosening the vise grip. With only about 100,000 whites, of 270,000 before independence, left in this country of 8 million people, the balance is bound to shift. And today's up-and-comers consider themselves at the fore of a kind of second revolution here.
In addition, many diplomats and analysts see a big bourgeoisie as a buffer against Zimbabwe's ever going wholly Marxist. President Robert Mugabe came to power muttering Marxism, as did members of his party. (So did the opposition, which just signed a unity pact to create a one-party state.) Thus far, Mr. Mugabe has pretty much left the economy alone; political observers say a lot of black businessmen will want to keep it that way.
``The rise of a middle class has great political significance,'' says Marshall Murphree, director of the University of Zimbabwe's Center for Applied Social Sciences. ``They increasingly are becoming the government's most important political constituency. So policy is going to have to be shaped to take note of their desires and aspirations.''
Those aspirations were a long time coming. And they are a stunning contrast to the constraints and conditions under which blacks lived for so many years.
Take education, for instance. In 1975, the Rhodesian government spent 18 local dollars per black pupil - 15 times less than it spent on white students. The scarcity of secondary schools open to blacks prevented most from attending; relatively high fees kept away even those who qualified.
Job prospects were also severely limited. Teaching was about the only profession open to blacks. They could own a shop - but only in segregated black areas. (Blacks, though, were allowed to operate transport companies.) No matter how high a salary they made, blacks had to live in the teeming townships.
But Mr. Murphree says that despite the deprivation, a strong entrepreneurial, ``can do'' ethic existed among blacks here.
He chalks it up to the influence of United States missionaries who went into the country in large numbers in the late 1800s. Thus, by the time independence and previously unthinkable opportunities came around, blacks were ready to jump in.
And jump they did. These are some of their stories:
Ezekiel Mutasa: `The world is open for us now'
Ezekiel Mutasa used to dream about going to Japan. Strange stuff for a boy who spent a lot of time growing up in a rural ancestral village, learning traditional ways to hunt and plow.
But Mr. Mutasa, a tall, lanky man, was electronics mad. To him, Japan seemed to be on the cutting edge of everything new and exciting. So he dreamed what were impossible dreams for a black during the days of white-only government.
Today, the 26-year-old Mutasa owns an electronics company - the only black-owned computer company in Zimbabwe. And he has visited Japan twice. ``The world is open for us now,'' he declares, looking every inch the executive in a well-tailored suit and aviator glasses.
There is little in Mutasa's background to suggest Silicon Valley. As a child, he had to walk miles to get to the nearest post office. His parents, both of whom were teachers, had him educated at a no-nonsense Jesuit mission.
Life was pretty austere.
His big break came in 1978 with a scholarship to study in Wales. He later enrolled at City University in London, graduating with a degree in computer engineering. After short stints at various computer companies, Mutasa returned home in 1983.
His plan was to produce a microcomputer of his own design, but that soon became bogged down in red tape. So he started Tee Systems Ltd. in a small rented room with one telephone. ``I saw myself as a one-stop shop,'' says Mutasa, who speaks in rapid-fire bursts of words. ``I could talk software, hardware, everything. But I had to run around, knock on doors, beg for clients.''
Mutasa says racism was the biggest problem he faced - even among blacks.
``Someone would come to talk to me and I could see him thinking, `How did this black guy get behind that desk?' It took a while to see I knew what I was talking about and to treat me as a professional.''
He now employs 15 people in half a wing of a suburban shopping center, and his client list reads like a page of Fortune 500. ``Independence isn't enough,'' Mutasa contends. ``We still have to transform this society. My employees see this company growing, and it gives them confidence. Maybe in my own way, I'm helping that transformation.''
Michael Mbizvo: `We can map our own course'
For some, the changes here are seen as rightful recompense for years of hardship and pain.
Just ask Michael Mbizvo. The eldest of five children, he grew up in a tiny house with no running water or electricity. His father, who worked as an orderly, struggled to scrape together money for school fees. Education was everything.
But in 1968, Mr. Mbizvo's world fell apart: He was expelled from a hard-won slot in high school for making a political speech to fellow students. ``My father was devastated,'' recalls Mbizvo, who is soft-spoken and built like a small tank. ``His first-born had lost his only chance to get ahead. He said I would end up herding cows for a living.''
Determined to regain his honor, Mbizvo enrolled in a polytechnic institute. He flourished there, scoring the highest in his class on exams his next to last year. But when he went to register for his last term, the white woman behind the counter told him the rules had changed: Blacks could no longer attend the school.
``What could I hope for in a system like that?'' says the 35-year-old Mbizvo.
A lecturer at the school pitied him and obtained permission for Mbizvo to finish a technical, nonacademic degree. After months of pleading, he landed a technician's job at the local university - the first black ever to hold such a post. He became friendly with his boss, who arranged a correspondence course for him in physiology and pharmacology with a British university. That resulted in a bachelor's degree in 1975.
While the years leading up to independence were marked by Mbizvo's battles for equal pay and job security at the university, everything changed after 1980.
For starters, he moved out of the squalid room he was renting and bought a home in posh Lincoln Green - an area he never even knew existed.
``The fruits of victory,'' Mbizvo says, referring to his living room with its slate fireplace, color television set, and video recorder. Outside, three cars sit in the driveway and a fountain gurgles from the swimming pool.
Mbizvo's only regret is not being able to share his happiness with his father, who died in 1974. Far from herding cows, he now boasts a master's degree in reproductive physiology and is working on a doctorate. His salary as chief medical technician at the University of Zimbabwe's gynecology department is triple what his father earned.
But perhaps most important, he has the freedom to select a school for his four-year-old daughter, Tararia. ``For the first time ever, we can map our own course,'' Mbizvo says. ``Do you know what that means in terms of human dignity?''
John Mkushi: `I just want to make a contribution'
John Mkushi grew up hearing one thing from his father: Whatever you do in life, don't take up a profession where you have to work for someone.
Sound advice. Except that the 39-year-old Mr. Mkushi ended up the equivalent of a vice-president of a large, multinational asbestos manufacturer. No matter that he oversees two factories and 1,200 workers. He is still a part of a hierarchy that has historically been hostile to blacks.
Which explains his father's admonition. ``He just couldn't conceptualize a black making it in a big organization,'' says Mkushi, a burly, bearded man with a predilection for nice ties.
His wariness was understandable, given the family's circumstances. The senior Mkushi, a shopkeeper, had a junior high school education; his wife made it only through grade school. Mkushi recalls vividly the racism they routinely encountered on visits to town: the little white kids who taunted them with jeers of ``boy'' and ``Kaffir'' - African terms of degradation.
``The humiliation,'' he says softly, ``is something I can never forget.''
Since Mkushi's dream - studying to be a veterinarian - was impossible for blacks, he borrowed money and studied agriculture. After completing a master's degree in Britain on scholarship, he was hired by a South African-owned brewery here as a junior manager.
Those were the twilight years before independence, when the war was heating up and every able-bodied white was called up by the Rhodesian Army. Mkushi had to fill in for people all over his division; by war's end, he was experienced enough to become general manager. The exposure was invaluable, he says, and it gave him the confidence to try bigger things.
After stints at a few other places, Mkushi landed his current job. The company is unusual: Three of the five vice-presidents are black. Nonetheless, he deals mostly with whites and thus has had to adapt to their golf games, dining clubs, and cocktail parties - not an easy transition for the boy who used to fear venturing into the white part of town.
But Mkushi thinks it is a useful exercise.
``I'm not trying to be a black person who is effectively white in behavior,'' Mkushi explains. ``I just want to able to make a contribution. The political revolution is over - it's up to us now to make a social revolution.''