Early one recent morning, without ceremony or announcement, a yellow crane gingerly plucked the nine-foot statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its pedestal in the middle of this capital.

For many whites here, Rhodes was the country's equivalent of George Washington, and the removal of the statue produced a bitter reaction. It was Rhodes who financed the first white settler colony 90 years ago in the land that came to be called Rhodesia before it officially became Zimbabwe with the advent of black-majority rule last year.

As Rhodes' statue was laid in a flatbed truck, destined for some museum, a group of blacks struck the figure with metal cables. When a young white man told them to leave it alone, he was jeered and jostled away with angry words and cuffs to the head.

In Zimbabwe, the new order is overtaking the old. How each copes with the change will go far in determining the country's future economic and racial well-being and in determining the place Zimbabwe takes in the world order. For black and white alike, there so far are both bitterness and promising signs of hope.

The white minority went unbowed by 15 years of international economic sanctions and was militarily undefeated in a seven-year war against black nationalist guerrillas. But whites are having to cope with the loss of political power accompanying their transition from ruler to ruled in this new black-governed nation.

For blacks, the transition is less traumatic, but they also are going through a psychological adjustment to Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's "new society" of nonracism and "people's power."

"All habits die hard," said Bernard Chidzero, Magabe's minister of economic planning and development. "To be ruler yesterday and today be among the ruled -- it's not easy to accept social change. But I can understand the blacks' difficulty in adjusting, too."

Although the transition is proceeding with fits and starts, overall it has been marked by grace and, so far, lower white emigration than during the peak of the war.

A taste of the new Zimbabwe came the other day when the country's women's field hockey team won a gold medal at the Moscow Olympics. The team is all white, but their victory chant was, "Forward with the rooster," which is Mugabe's party slogan.

Mugabe sent a congratulatory telegram addressed to the "daughters of Zimbabwe," and the minister of sports promised them each a gift of an ox when they arrived home.

A television "snap survey" showed blacks saying, "We are very proud of them," and "I hope the prime minister gives them a big party when they come home."

Many whites are making an effort to rise to the challenge of their new status. Dick Parry, head of the Automobile Dealers' Association, chastised his members in a recent speech for "a fatalistic acceptance that nothing could be done, while planning to move elsewhere.

"This is wrong. We must respond positively, act decisively and show determination to build Zimbabwe and make it a country of which we are proud to be citizens," he said. z

Cattle rancher C. D. Mitchell voiced similar determination. "I live on a farm that has had three generations on it, and I intend it will have three more to come. I'm not pulling in my horns." Like many other farmers, Mitchell is improving his farm, a project that he postponed during the war years.

Although there have been reports of bitter white civil servants waging a "guerrilla war" against new black trainees, every minister interviewed over a two-week period praised whites in his ministry for their cooperation.

For whites still here, or thinking of staying, a changing perception of Mugabe has been pivotal in their decision.

"I think he's a fair man," said Mitchell. "And I can live under any government, as long as it's fair."

But in the mental tug of war between disenchantment with losing Rhodesia and facing a new life abroad, many whites are still opting for the latter. In the first six months of this year an average of 1,170 whites left the country each month, according to official figures. At the peak emigration period during the war, 2,056 whites left monthly from October through December 1978. d

Observers predict that emigration will pick up later this year, however, and that between 17,500 and 20,000 whites will leave to be followed by another 25,000 to 30,000 during 1981. The highest yearly emigration of whites took place in 1978, when 16,467 left.

Economics professor Tony Hawkins and race relations director Marshall Murphree at the University of Zimbabwe both believe that emigration will not bottom out until 1982, when 150,000 whites will remain out of the 225,000 here now. That would still leave Zimbabwe with the largest white population of any black-ruled African country.

The final figure may well depend largely on how foreign aid and investment help Zimbabwe's economic development, meeting white expectations.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Donald McHenry discovered this recently when he walked into a Salisbury shop. The white owner asked him, "Aren't you that bloke McHenry?" When he admitted that he was, she asked, "Where's all that money you promised us?"

More than half the emigrating whites are taking their skilled labor to South Africa, where a booming economy guarantees them a job the day they arrive. Although this loss of skills hurts Zimbabwe's economy, the vacancies they leave behind are being filled by blacks who are pressuring the government for change.

Black ministers relate how their offices are filled every morning with blacks demanding to see them.

"Now that they have a black government, everyone thinks he can just walk in and see his minister," said one of Mugabe's senior Cabinet officials.

In one ministerial anteroom, a group of black airport security guards waited to see the minister just to tell him they did not think it was right that their white supervisor, who gets more money, sleeps on a cot and gets tea in the morning when all he does is turn in the report they write from nightly rounds the night before.

At a fertilizer manufacturing firm, black workers demanded that a black colleague tell their white foreman for them that he could no longer call them derogatory names.

"Tell him this is Zimbabwe," they said.