Three recent indicators have boosted hopes here that Zaire's potentially rich economy can be nursed back to health, although it will remain in a delicate balance for the foreseeable future.

For the first time since 1975, Zaire last year recorded a small rate of economic growth, 1.8 percent, according to an International Monetary Fund report.

Inflation has also dropped during the past two years from 100 percent to 55 percent a year, with intermittent relapses. A recent World Bank report states that economic deterioration "was arrested" in 1980.

For the last three quarters of 1980, Zaire was able, for once, to keep up with its rescheduled payments on the country's $4.4 billion debt.

Nevertheless, much economic reform is needed before Zaire could ever reach its full potential as one of Africa's naturally wealthiest countries.

Zaire's autocratic leaders allegedly continue to siphon off into private bank accounts the nation's diminishing revenues. The civil service, despite some improvement, remains thoroughly corrupt. The country faces declining returns for its mineral exports and continues to be plagued by gross financial mismanagement. Moreover, Zaire uses 30 percent of its gross national product to service its debts, a situation that is expected to continue until at least 1983, according to the World Bank.

After Zaire's five years of turbulence following independence (when it was called the Congo), the country's economy grew at a healthy 7 percent annual rate between 1968 and 1974, according to a World Bank study. Its present crisis began in 1975, when world market prices for its exports plummeted. The government had neglected agricultural production for a dependency on mining and had mismanaged the economy, the report continues. In addition, the government borrowed heavily for prestigious industrial projects.

The heavy burden for the country's weak economy has fallen on the shoulders of the average Zairian, both the urban dweller and the farmer.

The median income for a Zairian working in private industry in 1980 was 170 zaires a month, less than half the cost of feeding an average family of six, the report continues. On Zaire's black market the exchange rate is 10 zaires to a dollar compared to the official rate of 5.5 zaires. "No economy can function properly with this type of [black market] disequilibrium," the report concludes.

In June, the IMF agreed to pump $1.1 billion into the Zairian economy during the next three years to try to resuscitate Zaire's faltering industries. Dependent on imports of primary materials and spare parts that have to be bought with scarce foreign exchange, Zaire's industry has been running at 30 percent production capacity for years. The fund's loan is the largest so far to an African country, economic analysts said.

"This IMF grant is very important to us," said Bank of Zaire governor Sambwa Pida Mbangui. "If Zaire respects the [IMF-imposed] criteria, we will be able to buy primary material and spare parts."

In the past, an inability by Zaire's leadership to stick to the fund's guidelines has been a major stumbling block to the country's recovery, Western economic analysts said.

"As soon as there has been a slight improvement locally, [the country's leaders decide] to take a chunk of money for [themselves]... and everything goes quickly back to hell," said one informed source."It's a never-ending fight of two steps forward, 1 1/2 back."

This time, there seems to be a genuine effort to follow the IMF guidelines, however.

The government has begun to remove hundreds of fictitious names from government employment rolls as well as the Army's "ghost" battalions for whom top-level civil service officials and high-ranking officers have for years collected pay. Civil service and Army salaries have represented almost half of Zaire's annual $1.1 billion budget.

The worldwide decline of mineral prices coupled with declining production -- partly a result of the shrinking income from exports -- have slowed Zaire's economic progress.

The government's mining company, Gecamines, produces up to 70 percent of Zaire's average $1 billion annual export earnings through its copper and cobalt mining operations headquartered in Zaire's southern Shaba Province town of Kolwezi. Yet even this vital operation has never been fully allocated the foreign capital it needs to maintain its equipment.

All of Zaire's copper and cobalt is processed through its former colonial power, Belgium, and almost all of its mineral export earnings come back to Zaire through Brussels banks.

Large amounts of capital earmarked for Gecamines operating needs gets diverted elsewhere "on orders from [President Mobutu Sese Seko's] office," said a European diplomatic source.

Belgium reaps large profits from refining Zaire's minerals, bank commissions for handling the cash transfers and storage charges for Zaire's growing cobalt stockpile, which could reach 20,000 tons by the end of this year.

World cobalt demand has fallen in the last two years because large numbers of jet engine manufacturers, aerospace industry and other users of cobalt alloys switched to substitutes such as nickel when Zaire's mineral marketing board, Sozacom, overpriced the mineral.

The United States, which annually buys 60 percent of Zaire's 14,000-ton cobalt production, recently contracted to buy 2,300 tons a year more.

In the meantime, Gecamines was forced earlier this year to cancel expansion plans because it has not been receiving the foreign exchange it requires and may face a decline in its operations if it is unable to maintain aging equipment. Last year, Gecamines produced 425,000 tons of copper and 14,700 tons of cobalt, both very good production records, analysts said.

One project that was supposed to make the canceled Gecamines expansion project profitable, the 1,100-mile Inga-Shaba high-tension line, will be a white elephant for Zaire for years to come. Being built by the American firm of Morrison Knudsen, the line is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year -- four years late -- at an estimated cost of close to $1 billion of which $650 million is in cost overruns. When it reaches Kolwezi, in Zaire's south, from the Inga Dam in the north, the line will just hang there with no mining operation to hook up to while Zaire continues to pay interest and principal on the money borrowed to build the line.

Zaire's other major export item, industrial diamonds, also faces declining prices and already is in a production slump.