A signal event in the lives of millions of people in southern Africa takes place this week. Nearly 3 million black residents are eligible to go to the polls from Feb. 27 to 29 to choose the first majority-rule government of Zimbabwe occupies a strategic place in the subcontinent.
The Rhodesian elections may help answer a number of questions clouding the future of southern Africa. Among them:
* Will the seven-year-old guerrilla war here that has claimed over 20,000 lives finally come to an end?
* Will one of Africa's potentially richest countries -- a supplier of vital minerals to Western nations -- achieve stability and prosperity after 15 years of international isolation?
* Will South Africa -- the last bastion of white rule -- be encouraged by an example of peaceful changeover to majority rule, or hardened by the specter of whites fleeing an allout civil war in Zimbabwe?
Because the questions are important ones, the voting in Rhodesia will be closely scrutinized. Observers from the United Nations, 12 Commonwealth countries, and a dozen other nations are on hand to determine whether the ballot is "free and fair."
But, like beauty, freedom and fairness may ultimately be in the eye of the beholder. On the one hand, the struggle for control of this California-sized country has moved largely from the battlefield to the ballot box in just three months. On the other hand, the electoral campaign has been marred by political violence, including at least one apparent political assassination and several other unsuccessful attempts, and lawlessness in some rural areas.
And then there is the issue of political intimidation -- demands for political allegiance and threats of noncompliance -- that could either sway an unsophisticated electorate or backfire on the perpetrators. Virtually every major party has accused its rivals of using unfair methods to compel voter obedience.
Consequently, there is likely to be criticism of the electoral outcome, no matter who wins. Some African nations have already threatened to withhold recognition of the new government if they are unsatisfied with the election results. And South Africa has threatened to intervene militarily if there is a breakdown of law and order after the balloting.
But even on the eve of the election, the outcome remained unpredictable. The likelihood, however, is that Joshua Nkomo, the rotund veteran nationalist, will emerge as a key figure in any new government. None of the 10 competing black political parties appears to have dented Mr. Nkomo's following among his minority Ndebele tribe, which includes about 20 percent of the population. the tribe will choose at least 16 of the 80 parliamentary seats reserved for blacks.
Most of the votes of the majority Shona tribes are expected to be split among parties headed by Bishop Abel Muzorewa and Robert Mugabe. If neither wins an outright parliamentary majority of 51 seats, Mr. Nkomo seems a likely partner in a coalition government.
And the White Rhodesian Front Party -- rulers of Rhodesia for most of the past 18 years -- controls a bloc of 20 seats reserved for whites. It could also enter into a coalition government.
Thus, the Rhodesian elections may well be only a prelude to a period of behind-the-scenes political jockeying to form the country's first internationally recognized majority-rule government.
But perhaps the most ominous question hanging over Rhodesia is whether the eventual losers in the election will rekindle the guerrilla war here.
There are some 50,000 armed troops in the country, many of them loyal to specific candidates or parties. If sufficient numbers of them resort to violence after the election, that could precipitate South African military intervention and a widening of the conflict in southern Africa. Then the possibility of Cuban or East-bloc forces entering the fray could not be ruled out.
Significantly, on Feb. 25, over 600 of Mr. Nkomo's guerrillas reported to a camp near Bulawayo for retraining as conventional soldiers, the first step toward integrating with their former foes in the Rhodesian government forces and thereby averting civil strife after the balloting.