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When the waiter brought chow mein to the dinner table at a Chinese restaurant in the Zairian capital of Kinshasa, an American diplomat exclaimed with surprise:

''Look at that. It's got fresh carrots.''

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The just-arrived visitor may have been nonplused by the outburst about a perfectly ordinary vegetable. But to the resident diplomat, carrots on the menu meant only one thing:

''It proves that South African planes are flying in these carrots at night, because they don't grow them here,'' the diplomat explained.

South African carrots in Zaire tell much about this strategic, pro-Western, potentially rich, but virtually bankrupt nation that sits like a bull's eye in the middle of Africa, ringed by no fewer than nine countries. They show:

* Zaire's agriculture is in such a deplorable state that this nation, once self-sufficient in food, must now import it.

* Zaire has no hesitation in turning to a country, South Africa, which is anathema to virtually all of black Africa for its apartheid policies. (Almost half of Zaire's food is imported from South Africa; the rest from Europe. Zaire also sends its copper exports via South African ports.)

Zaire has taken another maverick step in Africa. It recently became the first black state in Africa to renew diplomatic relations with Israel. A number of African nations broke with Israel in 1973 to protest its Mideast policies. But Zaire will receive Israeli military training and some $8 million in equipment, which is seen as a preliminary step to broader defense ties.

Zaire's dependence on South African food - and now on Israeli military support - is indicative of broader international support, which critics of the country say keeps President Mobutu Sese Seko in power.

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When rebellion has reared its head, foreign troops have been called in to put it down. That is what the Moroccans did in Shaba Region, formerly called Katanga , in 1977, and what the French Foreign Legion did the following year, again in Shaba.

When the country fell into massive debt, nervous Western powers rallied to its assistance with an emergency loan package lest this mineral-rich country with strategic minerals fall into communist hands.

The dilemma for Western diplomats is how to conduct business with an inept, corrupt leadership in a nation that sits atop a treasure trove of minerals and that the West would not like to see turn communist.

Zaire, for instance, is the world's largest producer of industrial diamonds, and provides 67 percent of the world's cobalt (vital for jet engines). It also is one of the world's largest copper producers, as well as having deposits of gold, silver, oil, zinc, manganese, tin, iron, bauxite, and coal.

Yet this sprawling land, one of the largest nations on the continent, is unable to feed itself; its economy is in ruins, its treasury bankrupt. There is every sign of matters getting worse rather than better.

Not only has the United States Congress cut back on its military aid to Zaire as an expression of disapproval of the Mobutu government, but also the International Monetary Fund was forced in 1981 to cancel extended standby credit. Sources close to the IMF say the institution is in no hurry to resume aid to Zaire, which had failed to carry out its fiscal obligations under the IMF arrangement.

''Zaire,'' says a Washington source who knows the country well, is ''on a slippery slope.''

No change is expected while the Mobutu government is in power. Yet the status quo makes the West uneasy, because Zaire has been living on borrowed time. The country's debt now hovers above $4 billion, which, although small in comparison to that of Mexico or Brazil, is very large compared with its own GNP and with other African debts. Since 1976, Zaire has rescheduled its debt four times, and it is substantially in arrears with debt-reservicing payments.

The collapse of world commodity markets - such as those for copper, diamonds, coffee, and cobalt - and the subsequent world recession, which further dampened the demand for these items, have taken a heavy toll on the Zairian economy. But aid experts say the roots of the problem are gross mismanagement and corruption.

Thomas Callaghy, assistant professor of political science at Columbia University, says the situation in Zaire is ''very, very depressing. The whole infrastructure is eroding.''

On a visit to Kinshasa last summer, Professor Callaghy found that bridges and roads were literally collapsing. ''There is no concerted effort to keep them in good repair. A larger and larger percentage of the population is returning to subsistence farming,'' he says.

The concern with which the international community views Zaire is reflected in a report prepared for the IMF by the former director of West Germany's Central Bank, Erwin Blumenthal. In his report Mr. Blumenthal said: ''There is no , I repeat no, chance on the horizon for Zaire's numerous creditors to get their money back. . . . There has been and remains only one major obstacle to annihilate such prospects - the corruption of the team in power.''

Corruption is so rampant and so blatant in high places that a source close to the IMF says the world body is not eager to get back into Zaire.

The IMF had arranged a three-year extended funding facility (in effect an extended standby credit) for approximately $1.2 billion in June 1981. But the agreement broke down soon afterward because of Zaire's inability to face up to its fiscal responsibilities. A dialogue is currently going on between the IMF and Zaire, but no plan of action is expected for the time being.

What is more, Zaire appears cavalier about its debt problems - presumably because it knows that as long as it can keep on rescheduling its debts, Western banks would not want it to default. Nor is much weight attached to frequent assurances from Zaire that it intends to put its economic house in order.

A congressional foreign-affairs source in Washington who is familiar with the situation says about Zaire: ''It hasn't got the will to stop overspending, because of corruption. For the leadership to crack down and keep their own privileges would be to drive their people into even further poverty.''

The average worker in Kinshasa now earns only one-tenth of what he earned at independence in 1960. At that time Zaire was one of black Africa's most promising new nations; its potential economic wealth exceeded even that of oil-rich Nigeria. Today each of its nine neighbors has a per capita income greater than that of Zaire. Zaire's per capita income is only $127.

Despite Zaire's classification by the World Bank as a ''low income'' country, its President is generally regarded after the passing of Ethiopia's late Emperor Haile Selassie as the wealthiest man in Africa. Much of his fortune is believed to be stashed away in Swiss bank accounts.

The Blumenthal report for the IMF made a definite link between the country's economic deterioration and the President's own fortune, estimated at $4 billion. The report details the President's properties, including five chateaus and seven other holdings in Belgium, as well as homes in Paris, Switzerland, Italy, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Chad.

Approximately 10 to 20 percent of the budget is a discretionary fund for the President's own personal use.

Yet many Western bankers and governments don't see any credible alternative to Mr. Mobutu - or they feel Zaire may be even worse off with the alternative than it is today.

Although an authoritarian figure, Mr. Mobutu has none of the ruthlessness of an Idi Amin of Uganda, a Macie Nguema Biyogo of Equatorial Guinea, or a Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, three dictators who have been overthrown.

The Zairian President has proved himself a more skillful and subtle political leader, a survivor. Diplomatic sources say President Mobutu is able to maintain his position by rewarding his ministers handsomely and then rotating his Cabinet to ensure that those in power toe the line. At the same time, he holds out the promise of lucrative positions to those not yet summoned to the inner circle.

While Zaire's economy is in a shambles, Mr. Mobutu is still remembered for imposing order on a country that experienced five years of chaos until he seized power in 1965. Staggering challenges faced the leadership at that time. At independence, Zaire was without a single African doctor, lawyer, engineer, or Army officer. There were only about 20 university graduates in the whole country.

Mobutu, who cuts a striking figure in a leopard-skin cap and who carries a carved swagger stick as a mark of his high office, first came into prominence at the time of independence in 1960, when the Belgian Congo became the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was later renamed Zaire, and the name of its capital of Leopoldville changed to Kinshasa.

In September 1960 President Joseph Kasavubu dismissed Premier Patrice Lumumba , who in turn dismissed Mr. Kasavubu - whereupon Mobuto, who was the Army Chief, climbed onto a marble-top table in a hotel parlor and announced he was dismissing both of them. He returned the country to civilian rule in 1961, but seized power again in 1965 and has kept it ever since.

Mobutu is credited with skillfully playing a weak hand by uniting the country by neutralizing hundreds of tribal factions and rewarding his associates with lavish patronage.

The disappointment to many Africa watchers is that a country that started out with the best economic potential in Africa has fallen so far behind. Zaire in brief

Political status: Gained independence from Belgium June 30, 1960.

One-party, pro-Western state under strong presidential authority.

Population: 29 million.

Area: 905,562 sq. mi. (size of Texas and Alaska combined).

Natural resources: World's largest known reserves of cobalt; world's largest supplier of industrial diamonds.

Also copper, gem diamonds, gold, oil, zinc, manganese, tin, columbium-tantalum, rare metals, bauxite, iron, and coal.

Per capita income: $127.

Languages: French, Swahili, local languages (principally Lingala, Kikongo, Kingawa, Tshiluba).

Monetary unit: Zaire (about 17 cents US).

Literacy: Males 40 percent; females 15 percent.

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