Whites Under Black Rule: What’s Changed and What Hasn’t in Zimbabwe


ON THE DAY in 1980 when control of the southern African nation of Rhodesia passed from the minority whites to the majority blacks, a white farmer named Michael Townsend was on patrol in the bush with the Rhodesian Army. His wife, Cathy, was home at their farm with their youngest son, behind a barbed wire fence and bulletproof screens.

Rhodesia died that day and was renamed Zimbabwe following more than a decade of international sanctions and seven years of guerrilla war. Under pressure from Britain, the United States and South Africa, Prime Minister Ian Smith had grudgingly agreed several months earlier to hold open elections in a country where blacks outnumbered whites by a ratio of about 28-1. There was little doubt that the new prime minister would be black, but whites were convinced that he would be Bishop Abel Muzorewa, a moderate Methodist minister heavily backed by South Africa.

The election results broadcast on March 4, 1980, came as a bombshell. The name that crackled above the static was not Muzorewa but Mugabe. Robert Mugabe, as far as most whites knew, was a Communist terrorist, trained by the Chinese and armed by the Soviets.

On patrol in the bush, two men in Townsend’s squad wept. “They were convinced that their families would be dead before they got home,” Townsend says. “That’s how much propaganda had been on over our radio.”

The Mugabe who appeared on television that night, in a conservative suit and metal-rimmed glasses, spoke of beating swords into plowshares, of reconciliation, not recrimination. “I urge you, whether you are black or white,” Mugabe told the nation, “to join me in a new pledge to forget our grim past.”

He spoke directly to the Townsends’ deepest fears. He said that the commander of the Rhodesian forces, Gen. Peter Walls, had agreed to help supervise demobilization. There would be no seizure of property, no expulsion of whites.

“It is not the intention of our government, when it comes into being, to deprive the civil servants of their pension rights and accrued benefits; nor do we want to drive anybody out of this country; nor do we intend to interfere unconstitutionally with the property rights of individuals.”

No speech that Mugabe ever makes again is likely to have a greater impact. Some white families literally stopped packing their station wagons. The worst had happened, but, all of a sudden, to the Townsends and many others, it didn’t sound so bad.

“From that point, we stopped panicking,” says Townsend, who stayed in the country even though most of his relatives moved to Australia. “I mean, everybody still remained worried for quite a long time. But I can say that was the turning point. Things could have gone very badly wrong then.”

Six years later, the Townsends are proud to call themselves Zimbabweans. The transition to majority rule has been easier than most whites expected. The Mugabe government chose not to chase the whites away because it did not want to lose capital and skills it could not easily replace. Instead of making an abrupt turn to socialism, the Mugabe government has tried to harness a basically capitalist economy to fund social reforms. The pragmatic approach has paid off in economic and political stability.

In a continent struggling to feed itself, Zimbabwe is stacking up record surpluses of corn. New government health clinics dot the countryside. The number of students in elementary school has tripled in four years. Black and white Zimbabweans now share park benches and church pews, classrooms and corporate cafeterias.

“Life for the whites has not deteriorated,” says Mike Auret, chairman of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe. “Life for the blacks has improved beyond recognition. What has happened was a miracle.”

Compared with its neighbors in southern Africa, the landlocked nation does seem an island of stability. Northeast and northwest are Mozambique and Zambia, black-ruled nations that cannot feed themselves despite their rich soil, countries where the redistribution of wealth has meant little more than shared poverty. To the south, South Africa sits on the edge of a black revolution fueled by the intransigence of the Afrikaner government.

Ironically, it was the government of South Africa that hastened the fall of Rhodesia by enforcing international sanctions in the late 1970s. It was as if the Afrikaners took a pragmatic view of themselves and realized that a radically conservative white government could not hold forever. So they pressed for change when it appeared that a moderate black government would come to power.

As far as Pretoria was concerned, the plan backfired with the election of Mugabe. White South Africans watched and waited for Zimbabwe’s economy to crumble. Blacks in South Africa rejoiced at the opportunity for sweeping reforms. Six years later, Zimbabwe has fallen far short of its promise in the eyes of those who pressed for a socialist revolution. It has far exceeded the expectations of those who were convinced it would fail.

In retrospect, the racial problems in the Rhodesia of the late ’70s seem simple as compared with conditions in South Africa today. Whites numbered 270,000 in Rhodesia, a country of more than 7 million blacks; in South Africa, there are about 5 million whites in a total population of 25 million. There were fewer black factions in Rhodesia and almost no urban anger. Landlocked Rhodesia could not ignore the pressure from Britain, the United States and South Africa. But it is easy to forget that Rhodesia was an armed camp in 1979. There were three armies, two black, one white, each distrustful of the others. Hundreds of whites and thousands of blacks had died in the fight for majority rule. The future path of the government was not certain or secure.

For the approximately 125,000 whites who elected to stay, the first and most difficult lesson was to accept the inevitability of change. Despite Mugabe’s assurances, more than half of the 270,000 whites fled, many to South Africa.

Few who did remain regret their decisions. Whites still own the best farms. They still fill the boardrooms of industry. Race relations are sufficiently positive that Mugabe bristles when asked to comment on the role of whites.

“To tell you the truth, that is primitive thinking from our point of view because our society is nonracial,” Mugabe said at a press conference at the United Nations last month. “We haven’t reversed colonial racial segregation, and we are not treating the whites as if they were underdogs because the blacks have power.

“No, they are a part of society. In fact, they have kept their wealth in their hands . . . They will continue to play a role alongside everybody else.”

The Townsends live on a modern plantation, where their cornfields and other crops are tended by more than 100 blacks, and their veranda is filled with polo equipment and comfortable, well-worn furniture. Townsend, who has won international awards for his seed corn, is the former chairman of an agricultural group that represents about a quarter of the white farms in the nation. Because he has urged his fellow farmers to build better houses for their workers, Townsend finds that he has access to government officials. Sally Mugabe, the prime minister’s wife, sometimes drives to the Townsend farm to buy meat and to urge Townsend to push for more rapid reforms.

To be white in Zimbabwe, Townsend explains, is to accept that the rules have changed. Blacks, not whites, fill the top government posts. They write the laws, draft the budgets, set the trade policies. Whites are politically inconsequential. But they remain enormously powerful economically. They retreat to predominantly white enclaves, soothed by servants and swimming pools. Most of their children go to private schools.

In Zimbabwe, the whites lost the war but not their lifestyles. * * *

Each morning at 5:30, the whistle of a 1926 steam engine breaks the silence on Johne Fletcher’s tobacco farm in Mvurwi. Fletcher, 49, marches out shortly thereafter, dressed in khaki shorts and ankle boots, with two dogs in tow. In the chill of the July morning, among the colder days of the mild Zimbabwe winter, he adds a favorite blue-and-black-checkered wool coat. He is a restless man, impatient and proud.

“We’re a white tribe here, that’s what we are,” Fletcher says as he checks the progress of a toolshed under construction. “We’re as African as any African, and we’re just as keen to see that this whole show works. If the country prospers, we prosper.”

Fletcher has not always been so optimistic. He and his wife, Philippa, left their farm in the hands of a partner in 1979 and moved to Johannesburg with their two sons. When they returned four years ago and later purchased the farm in Mvurwi, they foreshadowed another trend. This year, economists in Zimbabwe predict that more whites will enter the country than will leave. If trends from 1985 hold true, about 500 whites will enter each month, John Robertson, chief economist of the RAL Merchant Bank, says.

Newspapers in Africa and the West have heralded the return of whites. But RAL economists in the capital city of Harare, which was known as Salisbury before black rule, isolated a more significant trend in a recent study of white migration. The key to the equation is the dramatic drop in the numbers who are leaving. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, about 15,000 whites left each year. In 1984, 10,681 whites, or 8 percent of the white popula- tion, emigrated. But in 1985, 3,990, or 3 percent, moved away.

The deluge slowed to a trickle in the summer of 1984, partly because many whites who wanted to move had already left, but also because the economy in South Africa took a sour turn. But the decision to return is not always economic. Many, like Fletcher, simply wanted to be back home. “I don’t think a day passed that Johne didn’t want to be back on the farm,” Philippa Fletcher says.

The metal fence that separates his house from the tobacco barns remains a symbol of the troubled years. It is an unspoken reminder of the war, a war that was, for the most part, fought in isolated guerrilla attacks on the farmlands. Mvurwi was a particularly hard-hit area, well-traveled by the guerrillas based just across the border in Mozambique.

Only a handful of farmers actually died in their homes, but the threat was ever-present. The back of the Fletcher house is scarred by gunfire. A neighbor tape-recorded the attack on his home and replays the barrage for visitors. No one traveled after 4 p.m. because of the fear of ambushes. Any road could harbor a land mine. Each crackle on a short-wave radio might be a warning alert from a neighbor.

White farmers may have been among the most ardent supporters of former Prime Minister Ian Smith’s vision of Rhodesia. They seem the most at ease in the new country of Zimbabwe despite a host of new government regulations. The government dictates a minimum wage. The farmers are required to negotiate work rules with worker committees. They must obtain written permission from the Ministry of Labor to fire an employee. However, the white farmers are still called “boss”; their wives are addressed as “madam.”

Two slender black men move in silence about their work in the Fletchers’ three-bedroom home. A full-time gardener tends the flowers, lawn and vegetables. Around the barns, Fletcher is treated with deference by workers, who say he is fair and who seem to accept his impatient nature. There is a fire burning outside the gate to mark his path when he returns home late at night. It is tended by a worker in an oversize combat jacket who closes the gate behind the Mercedes and turns behind the brick tobacco barns to a separate world.

Many of the 50 men working for Fletcher were recruited from his first farm, where they had lived in brick houses. Fletcher has begun to construct homes on the new farm, but, for the present, most of the families live in small, thatched-roof huts with dirt floors that are typical of the region. There are a well and outdoor privies nearby, but none of the comforts whites take for granted.

The irony does not escape Fletcher. “The war was fought about land,” he says as he pours a gin and sits down in an easy chair near a roaring fire. “What does this guy across the fence think going down the road? He’s on his bicycle, and there I go on my Mercedes. Things haven’t changed. He got promised swimming pools and houses. He’s still there, and I’m still here.” * * *

At a glance, the biggest rugby match of the season appears to have little changed since the 1980 elections. Strapping white men in white shorts and green-striped shirts stretch in the warm winter sun in the Harare stadium. In the stands, black servants pour tea into china cups for white businessmen in blue blazers. Prosperous farmers speak of record harvests. The parking lot gleams with Mercedes-Benzes. Old Rhodesian names from old Rhodesian sports clubs fill the team roster. It is a nostalgic scene for anyone who ever cheered for the Rhodesian national team.

But, beneath this social veneer, the structure of Zimbabwe has been altered. On this day, the white Zimbabweans are playing the Soviet national team – irrefutable evidence that they are political spectators in a country their parents and grandparents ruled without challenge. White anti-Communists stand respectfully for the Soviet national anthem, as team captain E. Barrett of the Old Harareans sports club lines up against Igor Mironov of the Soviet Union. Camouflage-clad black Zimbabwean soldiers stand at attention a few blocks away at the presidential palace with Soviet AK-47s, weapons they used in the war of liberation.

“If 10 years ago you had told me we would be playing the Russians, I would have told you you were bloody crazy,” says a former commander of the Selous Scouts, an elite squad of the Rhodesian Army. “But, you know, a lot of things have been easier to accept than I would have expected.” * * *

Several factors have eased the transition for whites. Mugabe has earned enormous respect as a pragmatic leader. The economy is still basically capitalist despite the Marxist rhetoric of his government. The farms transferred to black peasant farmers were purchased by the government at fair market value. Blacks display little public bitterness to the former colonialists. And whites have learned to exert their influence as powerful behind-the-scene lobbyists, even if their role is greatly diminished in the 100-seat Parliament.

“Nobody has got any political expectations,” says Fletcher, whose grandfather was a member of the first Rhodesian Parliament. R.A. Fletcher followed Cecil Rhodes, the diamond and gold magnate, from South Africa in 1890. His son, Patrick, followed his father into politics. The building that houses the Ministry of Agriculture still bears the Fletcher name.

But this Fletcher has no illusions that he or his sons will ever be a political force. “We are political nonentities in this country. We can’t roll back the past. But we’ve had enough of wars of liberation. All we really want to do is get on.

“About the only guy who still likes to throw his weight around is Ian Smith, and he is an albatross around our necks. I wish that bugger would retire gracefully, step out of the way and let the rest of us adopt a lower profile.”

Not since Rhodes dispatched a group of settlers, the Pioneer Column, from South Africa has a single European left so deep an imprint on the country as Smith. It was Smith who, as prime minister, led Rhodesia to declare its independence from Britain in 1965; Smith who released a barrage of discriminatory legislation in 1969; Smith who pledged that black majority rule would not come in 1,000 years. And it was Smith who finally agreed to hold the 1980 elections during peace negotiations at the Lancaster House Conference in England.

Smith, 67, still sits in Parliament, elected to one of the 20 seats reserved for whites under one of the terms of the constitution hammered out at Lancaster House. He seems an anachronism, this slight, white-haired son of a Scottish cat- tle dealer who orders tea and biscuits for a visitor. The waning light of a winter afternoon fills the small, sparsely furnished office in Parliament. Across the street, Mugabe, the man Smith imprisoned for a decade, runs the country. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union controls 65 of the 100 votes in Parliament.

Like a broken Gramophone, Smith replays old themes. “In the end, we were never beaten by our enemies; we were betrayed by our friends. That is why we came to an end.”

He repeatedly sidesteps questions on why he opposed black rule. “What I said was I was opposed to black majority rule and that I would oppose it for all time, for 1,000 years. And I opposed it because I said I would not accept rule in this government, which has a color connotation – black . . . I said I am opposed to racialism.”

It is an incongruous statement for a man who propped up white minor- ity rule for as long as he could. “A superb politician, a lousy statesman,” one former government minister says of Smith. “But a man easy to underestimate.”

Most political observers had all but written off Smith’s Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe in the 1985 elections. A coalition of independents was expected to win most of the white seats in the second election of the new nation. But Smith and his followers walked away with all but five seats in an election in which only a small percentage of whites bothered to vote.

Mugabe was infuriated. “Never again shall we treat those who yesterday were our enemies, and who continue to demonstrate they are our enemies, as our friends,” he told a rally of 50,000 cheering supporters. “Things are going to be very hard for the racists of this country, very hard going, indeed.”

He struck back by firing Denis Norman, a nonpartisan white who had directed the Ministry of Agriculture. Mugabe made it clear that the white seats must disappear, either by a special vote next year or by a constitutional revision in 1990. Under the terms of the Lancaster House agreement, the seats can be abolished in 1987 with 70 votes in Parliament.

“I, for one, will vote for the 20 white seats to go,” says Chris Andersen, minister of public service, now the only white member of Mugabe’s cabinet. “Once you have whites trying to exert a political influence as whites, they become suspect. What they say is viewed with suspicion. The platform is a bad one.”

It is a view shared by many influential whites, including Norman and the leadership of the Commercial Farmers’ Union. Publicly, the union is careful not to criticize the government, but privately it seems to get its point across. A perennial complaint among its 4,500 members is the shortage of spare parts for farm machinery. But, after union president John Laurie met with Mugabe in December, government officials announced that the foreign currency allotment for spare parts would triple. A high-ranking official in the U.S. embassy describes the union as the most sophisticated lobbyist he has seen outside of Washington.

“This is the voice of whites in the future, to be quite honest,” Laurie says. “The time for white seats is over. As long as the white farmer remains positive, he has nothing to fear.”

Laurie’s confidence is echoed on the floor of the Harare tobacco auction. The complex, a gleaming new green-and-white building, is a $6-million vote of confidence by the growers in their own future in Zimbabwe. The auction floor, the largest in the world, is indirectly owned by the tobacco producers through taxes paid to the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association.

The growers savor their morning tea in a cafeteria overlooking the auction floor. Every move, every sale is directed by a computerized schedule. Like clockwork, the bales of tobacco zip in and out, pulled in small trains by motorized carts. Small swarms of buyers follow the cadence of the auctioneers up and down the aisles. Enough tobacco to make a billion cigarettes changes hands every morning. For the season, the tally is $350 million to $400 million, making tobacco second only to gold in foreign currency earnings.

Gent Pretorius, a young white farmer, walked between his bales – nervously pruning some of the spotted leaves he knew would lower the price. Black rule has not loosened his family’s ties to the land. “We would never leave the country. There’s no problem now. We’re just looking forward. You can’t look back.”

But below the surface, there is an uneasy sense of impermanence. To some extent, it is a feeling white Zimbabweans have always lived with, for it is a fragile continent, environmentally and politically. Coups and famine seem to sweep down on Africa with greater regularity than the rains. Zimbabwe is not immune to that instability. The population increases each year by almost 3 percent; women bear an average of seven offspring, with a child-survival rate of about five out of seven. Almost half of Zimbabwe’s 8.5 million people are under the age of 18. More than 90,000 youths a year are graduated from secondary school to an economy that is creating only 7,000 new jobs a year.

“Unemployment . . . is the single most disturbing factor,” Bernard Chidzero, minister of finance, economic planning and development, says. “The composition of that population is most worrying.”

The Five-Year National Development Plan hinges on dramatic growth in manufacturing, but few economists believe Zimbabwe will reach its targets of growth and foreign investment. American diplomats and businessmen complain that the government’s strident rhetoric often undercuts investment. The Reagan administration suspended aid in September after a Zimbabwean cabinet minister, invited to give a brief toast at a Fourth of July reception attended by former President Jimmy Carter, delivered a blistering attack on U.S. policy toward South Africa.

Another worrisome problem for the Mugabe government has been relations between his majority Shona tribe and the minority Ndebele. Black rule has been harsh for the Ndebele, who live in Matabeleland, a region of southern Zimbabwe. They are a proud people outnumbered 5-1 by the Shona, whose Zimbabwe African National Union dominates the government. ZANU and the rival Zimbabwean African People’s Union formed an alliance during the war of liberation, but the partnership unraveled when caches of arms were uncovered in Matabeland and the Zimbabwe government dispatched the army.

Reports by Amnesty International and the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights blame the heavy hand of the government for the disappearance or murder of 1,500 people in Matabeleland during 1983. The government said it was chasing dissidents and, even though the killings eased in 1984, the area has remained under a tight curfew and the detentions have continued. The curfew cut off deliveries of food and supplies to a region already devastated by three years of drought. “Now it is the black people who are struggling with each other. That is the pity,” said Joshua Nkomo, the leader of ZAPU, during an interview at his Harare home. He noted with irony that every six months the government renews the same state of emergency introduced by Smith.

The abuses, according to the lawyers committee, “have created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that will take years to overcome.”

But Zimbabwe’s greatest threat, by far, is its troubled neighbor to the south. More than 90 percent of the nation’s trade passes through the Republic of South Africa. South African Prime Minister P. W. Botha has made it clear that he will punish his neighbors if they and the West impose economic sanctions to pressure South Africa to abandon its entrenched policies of racial discrimination.

The specter of sanctions terrifies most whites. For the present, the economy of Zimbabwe works. But its continued stability is in doubt. There are only limited reserves of oil. Businessmen and farmers make do with outdated machinery and scramble for spare parts. The fears are that the economy of Zimbabwe will feel the pinch of sanctions before Pretoria. And, if times are hard, the whites wonder if blacks will still seem as magnanimous about the conspicuous consumption of whites.

“Being a white in Zimbabwe is like riding first-class on the Titanic,” says Danny Carney, a successful author working on his sixth adventure novel. “The glasses clink. The party’s going on. But, every now and then, there’s a whiff of the iceberg.”

From a white wicker chair in his well-tended backyard garden, Carney overlooks a valley of some of the most successful white farms in the nation. “We’re actually sitting on top of so much,” he says. “At some point, they’re going to want what we’ve got.”

But, at least for the present, there is little public resentment toward whites, even at an unemployment registration center in Harare, where many of the black men and women say they have been out of work for two, three and four years. Within five minutes, 150 people swarm around the interpreter, eager to see if jobs are being discussed. They spend most days outside the center in a field of broken glass and rubble waiting for jobs that never come. They complain about nepotism in the government and a stagnant economy, but they say they are not bitter about the conspicuous wealth of whites.

The Shona have a saying, Sango Rinopa Waneta, which means the bush yields to the hunter who perseveres. The people at the center are looking for opportunities, not handouts.

“I just want a chance myself,” says a young man with a high school diploma. “It’s all right if the whites have money as long as it creates jobs. We need their skills.”

Across town, Ignatius and Gertrude Musaindapo, a young black professional couple, agree that there is a role for whites in the building of Zimbabwe.

“But, if the blacks had the same attitude as the whites, it would be a disaster,” he says, pouring an orange drink for his 2-year-old son at an integrated country club. He is an insurance executive. His wife is the senior personnel officer of the government-controlled Minerals Marketing Corp., which exports Zimbabwe’s gold, chrome, nickel, asbestos and other minerals. They own a two-bedroom home in a formerly all-white neighborhood near the University of Zimbabwe.

“It is the whites who would like to keep the aloofness,” he says. “They are lucky a fellow like Mugabe is in. A few hotheads, and it would be a different story.”

Musaindapo is one of a handful of blacks who play tennis at the neighborhood country club. More than once, he has overheard racial slurs. Politely but forcefully, he made his displeasure known. But the Musaindapos are too busy balancing a new house, two careers and three children to dwell on such remarks. He smiles as he tells the story of his white next-door neighbors. For months, the mother had forbidden her son to visit Pasi, Mandi and Vunzai Musaindapo, so the children clung wistfully to a dividing fence under a border of bushes, where their giggling could be heard. Finally, the neighbor relented. And the laughter that rustled the leaves was free to roam the yard. * * *

But patterns of prejudice change slowly, even among the young.

About one-third of Julie Gaitskell’s classmates at Chisipite Senior School are black. Before 1980, there were only a handful of blacks at the expensive private school. Gaitskell takes it for granted that whites and blacks should have equal access to education and equal opportunity for jobs. But outside the exclusive girls’ school, the 13-year-old admits that she is uneasy in the presence of blacks.

“Although we have learned to live with them, we still detest them,” she says with a matter-of-fact innocence that belies the harshness of the statement. “You feel dirty when you are around them.”

Even at the school, the ties seem tenuous. During the mid-morning break, whites eat their sandwiches with whites. Blacks eat with blacks. But, as soon as the bell rings, they return to the classrooms and stand side-by-side at the blackboards.

Peter Fletcher, an 83-year-old white farmer and a cousin of Johne Fletcher, looks at the changes philosophically. When as a 10-year-old he planted the five jacaranda trees that now tower over his family’s rambling farmhouse, about 23,000 whites lived among 900,000 blacks in a nation approximately the size of California. Rhodesia was young and raw. Fletcher would ride for miles and miles without seeing fences or neighbors. But even then, he says he sensed that whites would not rule forever – and said as much in a school essay, which was ridiculed by his teacher.

“It was just a matter of facing the facts,” says Fletcher, leaning on a reed cane. “How could a handful of people go on controlling the masses forever? I am a racist like everybody else, but you can’t get away with it.”

Like many Zimbabweans of pioneer stock, Fletcher is proud of his heritage, proud that his father mapped the first land surveys of Matabeland, proud that Zimbabwe is now seen as a leader among African nations. “I still say this country has made the best job of it in all of Africa.”

Some older whites will never come even to that easy truce with the new order. For them, Zimbabwe is an alien land.

“We are financial prisoners of our own country,” a middle-aged white woman says in the ballroom at Meikles Hotel in Harare. “We’d like to leave, but where can we go at this stage of our lives?”

She is a widow who works in a downtown Harare shop. Her escort is a small-business consultant. Regularly, they come to the hotel to waltz, to forget for a few hours the impotence of their daily lives.

Like most people who are critical of the government, they ask that their names not be used. But, under the cloak of anonymity, they and their friends, a retired government electrician and his wife, mince no words.

“We were sold out by the British, by Harold Wilson and the rest of the moral degenerates in the Labor government,” the business consultant says, tapping a pack of cigarettes on the starched white linen tablecloth. “Now South Africa is the last bastion against communism, and people just can’t see that.”

As far as this foursome is concerned, the black man has destroyed his own continent. “We’ve gone down even quicker than Zambia,” says the wife of the electrician. “Zambia took 18 years. We took 18 months.”

They have a long list of complaints with Zimbabwe. The phones don’t work. Consumer goods are too expensive. The civil service has deteriorated. They fear for their safety. Currency controls have meant the postponement of trips to visit their children and grandchildren, who now live in Zambia and South Africa. “They wanted to stay,” the electrician says, “but there are – no jobs for whites.”

He, like many of the other artisans who once filled the Rhodesian civil service, had emigrated from Britain after World War II. Dismayed by the prospect of a black boss, the civil servants were many of the first people to leave after black rule. The size of the civil service has almost doubled, from 49,000 to 86,000, but the number of whites in the civil service has shrunk from 22,000 to 3,500.

“I still live here, but it’s not my country any more,” the electrician says, turning to the dance floor for one last waltz. * * *

For some whites, like Judy Todd Acton, it is the first time they have felt at ease in their own land. Acton recalls walking with her father in the early ’70s and sensing the hate of the whites who passed them in the streets. “They would look in the windows, down at their feet, anything to avoid eye contact with us,” she says.

Her father, Sir Garfield Todd, was a New Zealand-born missionary who sought to make room for educated blacks in the ruling elite during his four years as prime minister. Johne Fletcher’s father, Patrick, led the revolt in Todd’s cabinet that removed Todd from power in 1958. But he remained an outspoken critic of a government that moved increasingly further away from his vision of a country where opportunity was not limited by color. It was a vision that his daughter shared.

By the time she entered the University of Rhodesia, most of Acton’s friends were black. Today, many of Mugabe’s cabinet ministers and the members of Parliament were once Acton’s college contemporaries. But in 1963, they were considered enemies of the nation and were arrested for leading anti- government demonstrations. Nine years later, she and her father were detained in prison for a few weeks as enemies of the state. He was released to house arrest; she, to exile in London.

It was during the bleak days of exile that the Zimbabwe Project was born. With financial support from the Catholic Church, Acton and other expatriate Rhodesians funneled supplies to the refugees of the war. Now the Zimbabwe Project has turned its attention to the tens of thousands of ex-combatants still looking for work. The nonprofit group has provided loans and expertise for about 500 new ventures ranging from agricultural cooperatives to small print shops to rock bands.

“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to believe it’s really happening,” Acton, 43, says as she steps out of a dusty car in a remote area of southern Zimbabwe. Soft-spoken and unassuming, she would blend neatly into the background at any suburban shopping center. She seems strangely out of place dressed in a green-orange-and-yellow knit dress with a purse slung over her shoulder, surrounded by thorn trees, goats and acres and acres of arid land. She was hoping to see a vegetable garden, nurtured by an irrigation system financed by the Zimbabwe Project.

The chairman of the cooperative proudly leads Acton to the eight acres fenced off for irrigation. Only a few limp cabbage and tomato plants poke out of the soil. Without access to a tractor, the cooperative faces another desolate year. Acton is undaunted. An assistant promises to try to borrow a tractor from a nearby mission.

“They need a little bit of encouragement,” she says, “but they will make it. In every place, there must be pioneers.”

Like Acton, Mike and Diana Auret are whites on the front line of development. As chairman of the Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace, he has chronicled the human-rights abuses in Matabeland. She is the director of a Catholic development agency that sponsors small farming cooperatives and other rural projects.

They are proud of how far the country has come. But the cloud they see in the silver lining is South Africa, a key trading partner and the route through which most of Zimbabwe’s imports and exports must travel.

“It is the most dangerous thing that faces Zimbabwe,” Mike Auret says. “They have created destabilization in Mozambique and here as well. If they wish to be vindictive, the economy of this country can be destroyed.”

Mugabe, who maintains Zimbabwe also can wage an effective economic war against South Africa, has taken a more militant stance against the government in Pretoria than the Aurets had expected. The frontline states – Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – are all outspoken critics of apartheid, but only Zimbabwe and Zambia have imposed sanctions. The two nations led the call for sanctions at a meeting of Commonwealth members in August and chastised Britain for refusing to back the measures, including a ban on air links. South Africa responded with tighter border controls and new taxes on goods passing through to Zimbabwe and Zambia. Many economists expect more retaliation from Pretoria.

Mike Auret is worried. “We’re vibrant. We’re alive, and our economy is growing. We’ve had six years of relative plenty. People have become accustomed to that. If suddenly it becomes bad . . . ” his voice trails off.

The Aurets know first-hand South Africa’s power to pressure its neighbors. About one-third of Diana Auret’s time is spent marshaling aid for refugees who stream over the border from Mozambique. South Africa has backed the guerrillas in Mozambique for more than a decade, ensuring that ports there are not a viable alternative for Zimbabwean trade. Mike Auret is convinced that South Africa has contributed to some of the troubles in Matabeleland. The Aurets fear that the economy and the reconciliation between blacks and whites could unravel under sanctions.

“Make no mistake, the people are very resilient,” Auret says. “Whites and blacks went through 14 years of sanctions and made it. They will work very, very hard to make it again, but it will cause unbelievable problems if South Africa cuts us off.

“If the economy is destroyed, we’re just another Third World country. Right now, we’re not.”