Zimbabwe, once known as Rhodesia, was consumed during the 1970s by a struggle to cast off white-minority rule. During the past four years, the struggle has been to survive its independence without succumbing to the civil strife and natural calamities that have impoverished other new African nations.

Its soil is fertile, its climate invigorating and its economy is among the most dynamic on the continent. Despite all this, the combination of uncontrolled population growth and three years of drought have forced Zimbabwe -- normally an exporter of farm products -- to import food. LAND

A landlocked, mainly plateau country about the size of California, Zimbabwe is crossed diagonally by rolling highlands. The area has a cool, malaria-free climate and fertile land. Most of this good land is owned by whites. The lowlands, in the north near the Zambezi River, and in the south near the Limpopo River, are much hotter and drier. PEOPLE

Out of more than 9 million people in the country, only about 100,000 are white. This is down from 280,000 whites in the mid-1970s before independence. The black African majority is divided into two major tribal groups, the majority Shonas and the Ndebeles, who are concentrated in the southern province of Matabeleland. Nearly three-quarters of the population lives in rural areas. At about 50 percent, Zimbabwe's literacy rate is among the highest in Africa. GOVERNMENT

Civil upheaval has dogged Zimbabwe's history since the late 16th century, when Shona warriors fought off Portuguese intrusions. British pioneers, financed by the South African imperialist Cecil Rhodes, began moving into Zimbabwe in the 1890s and within 30 years controlled half the arable land. After more than a decade of guerrilla war, Zimbabwe attained full independence in 1980, with Robert Mugabe as prime minister. Bloody fighting continues between his supporters and scattered black dissidents. The prime minister, meanwhile, has sought pragmatic reconciliation with whites. While espousing an increasingly doctrinaire Marxist philosophy, Mugabe continues to encourage free enterprise. ECONOMY

With well-developed transportation and communications systems, rich mineral resources and a modern manufacturing sector, Zimbabwe's economy is regarded as a showpiece for black Africa. Drought and an ambitious effort to bring all blacks up to the level of whites, however, has strained the economy in recent years. Despite a steady exodus from the country, whites continue to play a role in the farm-dominated economy disproportionate to their numbers. While the productivity of small black freeholders increases, the 4,400 white farmers still produce about 70 percent of marketed crops. About 1.5 million members of black families are supported by laborers who work on white-owned commercial farms.