Now that he has power in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is suddenly talking the language of reassurance and continuity. Apart from one or two "hanging judges," an elite army unit and the security police head, few whites are resigning from public service or being asked to do so. The fiery Marxist and liberationist rhetoric is gone. A government of national union has been formed, with some representation given the interests of Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe's Patriotic Front partner-rival, and the whites.

Does this mean that the radical slogans of guerrillas elsewhere in Africa and the Third World can be dismissed as fashionable verbiage to be discarded once they gain power? Not quite. Mugabe's new line reflects his suddenly changed circumstances, not a sudden change in his preferences or those of his colleagues. His new enemies are chaos, confusion and white emigration. For now, the top priority is to gain full control of what already exists, not to wipe the slate clean. Whether Mugabe is essentially an ideologue, a closet moderate or Zimbabwe's shrewdest survivor remains to be seen.

Some will say that his lopsided victory means that "the majority of blacks subjected to white rule for any length of time develop into radical," in the words of Johannesburg's Financial Mail. The lesson to be drawn is that it is futile to seek out "moderate" African partners in hope of preempting radical change. However unpalatable a SWAPO victory in Namibia may be, the government of P. W. Botha in Pretoria should therefore face reality and permit the Western-sponsored U.N. transition plan to go forward. In South Africa itself, Pretoria should start negotiating with the "real" black leaders now. Since they are more "popular" than the moderates, the radicals have a more solid base that makes them better negotiating partners.

This view of Rhodesia's implications deserves a closer look. It seems to explains much of what is going on in southern Africa, but it is flawed on at least two counts.

First, it romanticizes Mugabe's victory. Popularity in most parts of the world has more to do with organizatin, interests and group loyalities -- and less with ideological abstractions -- than we like to admit. All of these things were working in Mugabe's favor in the recent election. Muzorewa collapsed because he had failed to end the war and could not escape a suffocating dependence on the white establishment in Salisbury, Nkomo's limited success can be explained in both ethnic and organizational terms. Mugabe, by contrast, could credibly claim that the war would continue unless he gained a major share of power. That fact itself delivered votes. His people were present on the ground where the bulk of population is centered to back up the message and get out the vote. In southern Africa, as elsewhere, the "real" leaders are those with the best organiaton, the broadest base and the best tactics.

The second flaw in the argument is that it contributes nothing much to our understanding of what will happen in the area. The white political establishment in South Africa does not believe that it has no choice -- at home and in Namibia -- but to accept "the inevitable." Pretoria's viewpoint is important since no one is yet in a postion to coerce a change in attitude.

South African decision-makers may view a strong Mugabe government in Zimbabwe to be the natural consequence of years of warfare and political ineptitude: it may be tolerable, but it is not benign. The Zimbabwean leader has said that he will not add to South Africa's military burdens, and such pragmatism will no doubt be reciprocated. Militarily, the end of the Rhodesian war actually reduces Pretoria's burdens and frees up resources for its regional policy. Little has happened to alter South Africa's overwhelming military preponderance.

For South Africa, the real significance of the Mugabe win is political. It demonstrates the bankruptcy of Ian Smith's ostrich-politk. It also discredits, in the white leadership's view, Western policies that refused support to Muzorewa but served to usher in a Marxist leader in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe is seen as a shocking reminder of how bad the future could be at home unless carefully controlled changes are made by the South Africans themselves. Changes in Zimbabwe will further fuel South African black aspirations, thereby giving new urgency to the task of finding alternatives to future Mugabes.

In Namibia, the Botha government can be expected to ask still tougher questions about the details of the U.N. transition plan so that SWAPO guerrillas are not free to influence the vote. There is no hurry in these matters; if anything, the Rhodesian drama argues for a cool and deliberate approach. South African restraint during the Rhodesian transition should not be misinterpreted; there was no credible basis for intervention. The reverse applies in Namibia -- Pretoria has not yet found a credible basis for withdrawal that will not be described by government critics as a sellout.

In short, the emergence of an independent Zimbabwe will not lead to overnight solutions elsewhere in the region. But it could offer opportunities to push for pragmatic change and reduced racial fears. Mugabe's Zimbabwe should receive Western economic and military assistance, subject to his respect for the Lancaster House accords and our own interests. The example of a reasonably successfurl Zimbabwe will oblige South Africa's white leadership to be far more specific about what it is they want at all costs to avoid. Militant blacks, on the other hand, would be pressed to articulate more coherently why real change requires the destructon of Africa's most Westernized and economically dynamic society.