The government of Zimbabwe announced Tuesday that it will soon introduce legislation to scrap special parliamentary representation for the country's 120,000 whites, a long-anticipated move that will formally end nearly a century of racial privilege in the continent's youngest black-ruled nation.
President Canaan Banana, in an opening address to Parliament in Harare, also outlined the government's plans to create a one-house legislature and an executive presidency, a job that will most likely go to Prime Minister Robert Mugabe.
Zimbabwe's white minority, accounting for less than 2% of the population, was guaranteed 20 seats in the 100-seat House of Assembly and 10 of 40 seats in the Senate in a British-drafted agreement, the Lancaster House constitution. It marked the end of a long guerrilla war against the white-led government and ushered in black majority rule in 1980.
The provision, intended to assure whites of a political role in the country they once ruled, called for white members of Parliament to be elected on separate, white voter rolls.
Under the constitution, the government could abolish the provision after seven years by passing a constitutional amendment. Such an amendment requires 70 votes in the assembly and is virtually assured.
When the system ends, whites will vote on a common roll with blacks, and only those white candidates who have enough support among blacks will be voted into the legislature.
Even with their guaranteed seats, Zimbabwe's whites have effectively given up the political power they had during the days when the government of the territory, then the British colony of Rhodesia, rebelled against Britain and declared Rhodesia independent rather than grant political rights to the black majority.
Of more than 200,000 whites in Zimbabwe in 1980, more than half have remained, running farms, factories and shops. Many of them consider the white Parliament seats an anachronism and say they will be happy to see them abolished.
Others, however, including former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith and members of his Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe, see the moves as part of a continuing erosion in the quality of life for whites under majority rule.
"This will be just another incentive to destabilization," Smith said in an interview at his suburban Harare home last week. "The white (seats) are not a political force. We could never influence government. But we can point out to government the concerns of the white community."
Smith, who led Rhodesia to independence in 1965 over the issue of black majority rule, was not present in the chamber Tuesday. He was suspended from the House of Assembly two months ago for calling Zimbabwe's decision to impose economic sanctions against South Africa "stupid" and urging Pretoria to fight international pressure.
Smith's Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe controls 14 of the white seats and the Independent Zimbabwe Group, composed of former Smith supporters, has five seats in the 100-member lower house.
Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU party, controls 67 seats, and the party of Mugabe's longtime political foe, Joshua Nkomo, has 13. One seat is held by a smaller party.
Merger talks between the parties controlled by Mugabe and Nkomo broke down recently, and political analysts in Zimbabwe see the constitutional moves announced Tuesday as setting the stage for the creation of a one-party system, one of Mugabe's primary goals.
Under the Zimbabwe constitution, an amendment creating a one-party state cannot be introduced until 1990.