Zimbabwe celebrates seven years of independence tomorrow, against a background of growing regional tension with South Africa and mounting economic difficulties. Ultimately Zimbabwe's future depends on the government's success in handling regional tensions and meeting the challenge of expanding its economy fast enough to satisfy its burgeoning work force. This is especially true if - as Prime Minister Robert Mugabe insists it must do - Zimbabwe imposes limited economic sanctions on South Africa.
Already the economy faces a difficult year ahead because of yet another drought - the fourth since 1980 - and swinging cutbacks in foreign-currency allocations. After only 0.2 percent growth last year, real gross domestic product is expected to fall 3 percent in 1987.
There is growing concern over the management and performance of the large and growing parastatal sector - partly state-owned enterprises. Two highly critical reports have been published on the state-owned airline and steel manufacturers. Parastatal losses this year are put at some $250 million to $300 million and business leaders are calling for an overhaul of the management system.
Most important is the employment situation. The current number of Zimbabweans employed is little different from the 1,055,000 recorded 12 years ago. At the same time, increasing numbers of well-educated school-leavers - 850,000 in the next four years - are flooding the job market. Unemployment has risen from 12 percent in 1984 to an estimated 18 percent. Economists warn it will top 25 percent by 1990 unless faster economic growth, more domestic and foreign investment, and increased exports can be achieved.
Meanwhile, on the regional front, recent tension underscores the extent to which South Africa has influenced Zimbabwe's formative years. Last week, South Africa accused close-by southern African nations, known as the ``front-line states,'' of infiltrating ANC guerrillas into South Africa to disrupt the May 6 whites-only elections. Zimbabwe flatly denied the allegations.
Zimbabwean ministers say Pretoria's ``destabilization'' policies force them to expand military spending, raise taxes, and reduce foreign currency allocations - all of which constrain social and economic policies.
Despite its heavy economic dependence on Pretoria, Zimbabwe has adopted a high-profile stance on the role South Africa's internal unrest plays in the entire region. This is partly explained by Zimbabwe's reliance on its neighbors during its own battle for independence, partly by Mugabe's strong personal antipathy toward enforced race segregation (apartheid) in South Africa, and partly by his emergence as a world figure.
In his seven years as prime minister, Mugabe has followed an activist, and frequently anti-Western, foreign policy stance. As chairman of the ``nonaligned'' movement, Mugabe sees himself as a torch-bearer on controversial issues such as nuclear disarmament, third-world debt, and the need for a more equitable international economic order.
Domestically, Zimbabwe's prime minister is committed to a socialist socio-economic strategy and in the first seven years of independence, substantial progress has been achieved especially in the fields of education and health. Education's share of gross domestic product has doubled since independence, accounting for almost 10 percent.
Similarly, school enrollments, including that of secondary, university, and teacher colleges, have more than doubled. In the rural areas many clinics and hospitals have been established. Minimum-wage legislation and measures to protect workers from unjust dismissal have been adopted.
Despite these successes, however, overall economic growth has been less impressive than was hoped at independence. The economy has grown at 3 percent annually since 1980 - roughly the same rate of growth as the population, implying there has been no significant increase in living standards.
Though socialist intentions have not brought nationalization (Zimbabwe inherited some state-owned industries at independence), the government has increased its intervention and participation in the economy, mainly through the purchase - at market prices - of a controlling stake in financial, industrial, and mining ventures.
These policies combined with a rapid growth in public spending have imposed a growing burden on the economy, reflected in stagnant employment that leaves thousands of graduates unemployed. The policies have also brought high taxes, high inflation, and low private-sector investment. Indeed, investment levels in 1986 were at their lowest since independence, while real wages and real incomes per person have fallen almost every year since 1982.
Zimbabwe's failure to attract foreign investment has been very disappointing. Businessmen say there is more disinvestment than foreign investment.
Politically, Mugabe's stature and control has grown since independence. His ruling party holds 66 of the 100 seats in the house of assembly and is well-positioned to carry out proposed constitutional changes this year. These include: establishing a one-party state and abolishing the existing 20 parliamentary seats reserved for the 110,000-strong white minority.