PERHAPS NO country could have borne the

burden placed on Zimbabwe when it came to independence three years ago. It was widely seen then as the place in Africa where an elected black majority government would rule democratically, make a fair place for the white minority as well as for its black rivals, conserve and develop efficiently the country's great resources and play a constructive role in regional affairs. The Carter and Reagan administrations in turn lavished good will and aid on Zimbabwe, expecting and gaining very little direct recompense, in order to help the country and to identify the United States with a presumptive showplace of change.

It is quite wrong now to say that all the hopes placed in Zimbabwe, and in the leadership of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, have washed out. Mr. Mugabe's commitment to national reconstruction and development has heartened a good many observers. He cannot be blamed for the ways in which world recession has aggravated home-grown economic strains or for the costs imposed by South Africa's unprovoked hostility and meanness, in pulling out its locomotives, for instance. 4 In recent months, however, a tendency has deepened that has cast a pall over Mr. Mugabe, and over the whole future of Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe has pursued personal, political and tribal differences with Joshua Nkomo, his colleague in the drive for independence and his rival for national leadership before and since, to the point where Zimbabwe may now stand not far from the brink of serious long-term unrest.

The facts are not all in, and no doubt Mr. Nkomo and his troops have a large share of the responsibility for the unraveling. But what is evident at the moment is that the Zimbabwean army, made up mainly of men from Mr. Mugabe's Shona majority, has been sweeping through the areas where members of Mr. Nkomo's Ndebele minority live, ostensibly looking for armed deserters and dissidents and killing villagers in huge numbers. The other day Mr. Nkomo fled the country, and the question now is just how bad the military action may turn and whether Zimbabwe's commitment to democracy and its wholeness as a nation--admittedly a nation under great strain--will survive.