I was away for several weeks right before the recent elections. As a result, you will be relieved to learn, I -- perhaps alone among the commentators of your acquaintance -- have nothing to say on the subjects of negative advertising, the high cost of campaigning or what the citizenry was really implying about Ronald Reagan in its votes for a host of other people. That's the good news. The bad news is that I want to talk about my trip.

I was in three countries of Black Africa -- Zimbabwe, Zambia and Kenya -- and it really is not fanciful, I think, to say that even a tourist-journalist's hasty study of these places arrives at precisely the same topic that is lurking beneath all that great rockslide of commentary on our own elections: democracy, how and if it can be made to work. Before you say the two settings are utterly unrelated, I should inform you that coming home to read in The Washington Post about the New York gubernatorial race ("Mailings have been made to Jewish, Irish and Italian voters, with straying Italians being encouraged to return to the GOP fold" and "Mario Cuomo's ethnicity is emerging as an essential reason to vote for him") I felt as though I were happily back among the Shonas and Matabeles. Don't talk to me about African tribalism.

Actually, the strength of "tribal" feeling in this enlarged context is one of the familiar, universal elements of politics that you recognize when you are there. The other familiar, universal impulse is that toward freedom and independence, even if only for the tribe, as distinct from the larger geographical entity. These struck me as the two most powerful political forces in the countries I visited. When you leave South Africa, the organized, efficient industrial state, and enter the social confusion of Zimbabwe, you feel a weight lift off you. For you encounter a general ebullience and excitement generated by independence, and you appreciate the intangible worth of this value we take for granted. These people are liberation junkies.

But, comes the immediate smart reply, look where it has got them, all this freedom and independence. Politically and economically, it is surely true, these countries, like much of the rest of Black Africa, are a mess. Although there are variations among them, there are certain dolorous similarities as well. They are all having foreign-exchange crises. Their economies range from severely troubled to just plain not working. Political repression, personal corruption and managerial inefficiency are constant, engulfing facts of life. So from all this many people conclude that Black African freedom and independence have been a washout, that they not only don't work, but are in fact a source of those countries' present grief.

There are two dominant strains of this argument. One is basically racial. It speaks in hints and indirection, but contains a barely suppressed gloat. "These people," it says, just aren't up to managing their own affairs. To some degree this is of course the case, although the reason for it is not the one advanced. The creation of widespread managerial skill in a population with virtually no experience in running anything other than someone else's kitchen or a guerrilla operation cannot be an easy or immediate thing. Many of the current leaders have given over much of their professional lifetimes to resistance, combat, political organization and/or incarceration by the British. The necessity, even relatively modestly fulfilled as in Zimbabwe, to provide some benefit to the newly independent population (e.g., schooling) costs plenty and can have a terrible impact on an economy already suffering from the effects of such disasters as severe drought and worldwide recession.

To the first "anti-independence" argument must be added the second, which is "anti-democratic." It says that the economic failures that have occurred since independence suggest that strong-arm, authoritarian methods of governing are required, that democracy is a frill that a struggling, newly independent society can't afford. No examples are provided of a place where such a change improved the economy.

My own feeling after a look at these three countries was that independence and, yes, some form of democratic government were the only possible means to their salvation. The caveat is this: I think the particular form of British parliamentary government that was grafted onto these societies and that was eagerly adopted by some of their own elites is probably wrong. It is surely not organic nor even quite right. In certain features it is preposterous. All that white-wigged parliamentary encumbrance, for instance, all that nonsensical Western apparatus. (Zimbabwe actually has a heraldic seal bearing in part this explanation: "Behind the shield are placed in saltire an agricultural hoe, blade pointed to dexter and an A.K. automatic rifle in bend sinister, foresight uppermost, all proper.")

These countries need to maintain large segments of their white populations and large numbers of their white investors, not because God played some genetic trick on them, but because for now that's where the experience and the money and the know- how are. But at least as important, they also need to come up with their own forms of governing. There are indigenous customs and methods of reaching consensus among these peoples that are relatively free and fair, although utterly different from our own. And I think too that at some time, probably violently, the borders of Black Africa will be redrawn better to reflect ethnic (as we say in New York state) realities.

We really do not know how to look at Black Africa. We see in Robert Mugabe only a "terrorist" -- until he becomes, as now, the leader in whom many whites repose their principal hope. We denounce tribal practice unaware that often within it lies the best capacity for reasonable rule. And we apologize for democratic practices and regret independence there, even though arguably it has been the absence of these things in colonial Africa, not their sudden availability now, that is the source of the problem. I figure that after a great deal more chaos and corruption and bad acting, they will turn both democracy and freedom to their indisputable advantage. I only hope I am around when these countries have the luxury of arguing over negative ads and the rules governing PACs.