DURING THE last full decade of South Africa's apartheid in the 1980s, neighboring Zimbabwe was often hailed as proof that black majority rule could work. More recently, though, it has become an example of how unwise policies practiced by an unchallenged, aging leader can throw a country into hopelessness.
This situation has been only too common in post-colonial Africa. Eventually, unhappiness swept aside such founding presidents as Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda and Malawi's Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
Now the same fate is likely to fall on Robert Mugabe, 74, who became Zimbabwe's top elected leader when the former Rhodesia adopted black majority rule.
Mr. Mugabe rose to power 18 years ago after his faction triumphed in a guerrilla war against a settler government that had declared independence from Britain.
While the peace agreement required that he tolerate white opposition during transition, he quickly moved against rival black political organizations. Today, only three of 150 parliament seats are held by opposition members. Mr. Mugabe also muzzled Zimbabwe's press.
Without accountability and public scrutiny, the leadership of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front has become severely tarnished by repeated scandals.
This year things have moved from bad to worse. The final straw was a 67 percent fuel-price increase. Strikes ensued and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions has emerged as the true opposition. For the first time, Zimbabweans talk openly about getting rid of Mr. Mugabe. But he is not budging.
Instead, he sent Zimbabwean troops to fight a $1 million-a-day war in the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo. However, these kinds of diversions cannot hide the fact that Mr. Mugabe's time is running out.
Pub Date: 12/21/98