At midnight tomorrow, the continent of Africa and the United Kingdom will give birth to the new nation of Zimbabwe. The person most responsible for this now-proclaimed victory for Democratic selection is Robert Mugabe, the man long denounced and defamed in Western quarters as "Marxist-terrorist, stubborn and intransigent." Now Prime Minister-designate Mugabe is finally recognized as the best hope for reasonable, workable approaches to development that the West needs to ensure a continued flow of natural resources and raw materials from the abundant supplies of southern Africa.

I first heard Mugabe praised by representatives of the Catholic Society for Racial Justice who visited the U.S. mission to the United Nations in early 1977. He had been imprisoned for nine years by Ian Smith's Rhodesian regime and was not nearly as well known as Joshua Nkomo or Bishop Abel Muzorewa. I was frankly surprised to hear predictions that he would emerge as the dominant influence in a new Zimbabwe and ultimately in southern Africa.

I was even more surprised -- shocked -- when I met him, for the "Marxist-terrorist" description of our press hardly prepared me for the genteel schoolteacher who came up to me with a glass of Fanta -- orange soda -- engaged me in quiet dialogue at a Tanzanian cocktail party. My subsequent dealings with Mugabe continued to contribute to the enigmatic impression that he creates by refusing to be put into any particular mold.

Robert Mugabe assumes leadership of a independent Zimbabwe that can determine the course of southern Africa's destiny. A highly principled, extremely disciplined and scholarly man, he resisted domination by all sides of his struggle for true independence. The British could never compromise or manipulate him, but neither could any outside African parties. He used Marxist rhetoric in an attempt to get Soviet military assistance but was feared by the Soviets, who preferred Nkomo, a man who they knew was no communist, but who would "play the game." Nkomo successfully won Soviet, British and even white Rhodesian support simultaneously, and was respected by all as a master politician. But Mugabe resisted every outside force and won the support of Zimbabwe's people.

Agricultural potential and mineral wealth give Zimbabwe unparalleled economic potential. Inevitably, it will become the center of an economic community of "front-line states." More than 10,000 university graduates (several hundred of whom hold professional degrees), an existing black middle class that includes several millionaires, and at least 30 American-trained PhD's who fought with Mugabe in the war of liberation give Zimbabwe more assets than any other new African state at the time of independence.

Zimbabwe, with Western help, can emerge rapidly as a source of stability and leadership throughout the region. An isolated or ignored Zimbabwe will be an extremely difficult adversary in international forums.

Mugabe's present style, viewed as pragmatic and statesmanlike, is consistent with the principles he has always espoused, but this should not be seen as a "turn to the West." On matters of trade and development, Africans have recently been quite candid about the West's superiority in technology, food production and other aspects of development. Even as Mugabe's ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) forces waged war with Soviet weapons that were obtained indirectly from Algeria, Egypt, Tanzania and Nigeria through the Organization of African Unity Liberation Committee, they spoke of the need for a strong private sector.

Joseph Tongogaro, Mugabe's military commander before he was killed in an auto accident just prior to the Lancaster settlement for Zimbabwe's independence, reflected at length with me during meetings in Tanzania on the need for training and education for young men after liberation. He too was quite pragmatic in his view that Zimbabwe's ties would be with those who could most rapidly assist in the restoration of the economy -- the nations of the West that could, if they would, provide capital, technology, management skills and markets for the abundant natural resources and human potential of their new nation.

Land remains the key element in Zimbabwe's future. Whites control 50 percent of the land though they are less than 3 percent of the population. Land will be regarded as communal property, as in Nigeria and in traditional African society, in order to plan and determine its utilization for the welfare of the nation's total citizenry. The language of revolution and change is always heavily Marxist-socialist, but the reality of change is recognized: the generation of new wealth and opportunities has been produced in cooperation with the West through the World Bank, the Lome Convention (through which the European Economic Community gives concessions for trade and development) and multinational banks and corporations, which after a period of interference and exploitation are finally learning to work in profitable partnerships with developing countries, making available the skills and capital that enable emerging nations to meet the heightened expectations of their people.

Zimbabwe's success or failure will have a lot to say about the future of southern Africa. A strong government that creates political stability and economic growth will inevitably help South Africa, which controls most of the rail and port access to this landlocked country. But Zimbabwe is also moving to a new interdependence with Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Botswana, Angola and soon, one hopes, an independent Namibia. Together they constitute the greatest store of minerals on earth. Their stability and progress will have a lot to say about inflation and unemployment here in the United States. Their growing new markets will be a wonderful outlet for the increased productivity we so desperately need.

But they will demand respect. They will emerge as a strong, independent, nonaligned voice in the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity. Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe represent the new emergence of hope and power in today's world. For the United States it means opportunity, challenge and also frustration as we learn to relate to this "brash new kid" on our block.