Ironically, in perhaps the only four months of Rhodesia's history that the British government exerted real colonial rule (and that designed only to transfer power to the black majority), it may have given Rhodesia's whites an opportunity for accommodation with black nationalism. Zimbabwe's white could soon bury their apprehensions about a future under an avowedly socialist regime and take up, instead, the challenge of helping Robert Mugabe build a stable, economically progressive and more equitable society -- with a sounder political base than they could ever have offered.

In some whites there may even be rekindling the vision of Rhodesia's pre-1962 white leadership -- a genuinely non-racial society in which white permanency would be ensured not by minority political domination backed up by naked force, but by the critical contribution whites would make toward the country's development -- and hence toward black progress. I remember countless urgings by the teachers in my (all white) high school that we could no longer expect to live well because of our white skins, but only by virtue of our economic contribution. That, of course, meant hard study and skill development.

That vision may have survived 17 years of Ian Smith's leadership, which deluded the bulk of Rhodesia's whites into thinking they could write off black nationalism as "beer-hall politics" or, at worst, the work of "outside agitators." While promising no more "appeasement" to black nationalism and boasting that white rule could be maintained for 1,000 years (or at least his lifetime), Smith blithely led most whites in the wrong direction -- like lemmings to the cliff's edge. By ruthlessly suppressing black nationalist leadership, he virtually ensured its successful resort to armed opposition.

The downhill slide into civil war and serious economic dislocation was inevitable. Yet, remarkably, many of his supporters clung to the illusion that Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the electoral victor of Smith's "internal settlement" with discredited black nationalists -- rather than the Patriotic Front, which had fought the "war of liberation" -- really represented the majority of Rhodesia's blacks. Some no doubt still credit Muzorewa's almost total electoral demise to "intimidation" by Mugabe's supporters (even though it was Mugabe who, after two assassination attempts, dared not leave his house to campaign).

While foresight and political wisdom have not, certainly over the last two decades, been the forte of my white Rhodesian compatriots, one might still hope they will recognize the tremendous (if perhaps not fully deserved) opportunity presented them by the combination of British diplomacy and Mugabe's first moves of statesmanship. He has set about forming a broad-based government of reconstruction and is following a political course apparently unbeset by dogmatism, excessive haste or recriminations against either the whites or his former black adversaries. If the whites seize the opportunity with sufficient imagination and commitment to building a multiracial society, they might ensure themselves a permanent and satisfactory place in Zimbabwe's future. They could become an indispensable part of Mugabe's solution, rather than just another of his problems.

Perhaps fortunately, too, history has not blessed them with fewer choices on which to exercise bad judgment. Mugabe's decisive electoral victory virtually precludes their repeating another of Ian Smith's more recent blunders -- siding with one (more "moderate") black nationalist faction against another. Kenya's whites would probably argue they did much better after independence by keeping pretty much out of partisan rivalries in black politics.

Another trap remains for Zimbabwe's whites -- obstructional use of their built-in constitutional privileges, or their institutional power (such as their lock on the civil service) -- to block or frustrate Mugabe's efforts to effect change. For instance, a negative approach to much-needed land reform could prove explosive and fatal. Land hunger, exacerbated by a population explosion, is rife. Of Zimbabwe's farmers, 99 percent are black and occupy 54 percent of the land, much of it unsuitable for intensive cultivation; 1 percent are white and occupy the other 46 percent of the land, about half of it with intensive agricultural potential. Creative land redistribution schemes, which need not throw white farmers off the land or jeopardize their considerable contribution to the nation's agricultural economy, are possible.

To succeed, such creative changes will require of the whites some really positive thinking, a far deeper appreciation of black needs and aspirations, considerable perseverance and, perhaps, a certain leap of faith. Their destiny may, in fact, be in their own hands a good deal more than they ever imagined it would be under a black nationalist like Mugabe. They could, given Zimbabwe's great natural and human potential, help Mugabe write one of the more encouraging chapters in Africa's modern history.