One of the men who has fought hardest and risked most for Rhodesia's transition to the black-ruled nation of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia did not participate in the recent election heralding that change. Robert Mugabe, 54, the leader of the Mozambique-based Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), would have been shot on sight had he tried to vote—not that he took it seriously enough to try. "The election will have no effect in stopping the war," vows the militant guerrilla. "Instead of the enemy wearing a white skin, he will soon wear a black skin." Indeed, Mugabe dismisses the winner, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, as a "neocolonial puppet," and declares in his eloquent English accent, "Our task is clear: to step up the armed struggle."

It may seem a premature epitaph for the historic birth of black-majority rule under Muzorewa, but Mugabe—along with the rebel forces of his unfriendly ally Joshua Nkomo in Zambia—has the power to abort it. Mugabe's forces already operate in 80 percent of the country and control 30 percent of it outright. That presence makes the West, particularly the U.S. and Britain, hesitant to recognize the election engineered by outgoing Prime Minister Ian Smith as part of his "Internal Settlement."

Mugabe directs ZANU and its guerrilla war from two floors in a high-rise building in Maputo, Mozambique, circled by heavily armed guards. He commutes in a three-car army convoy to and from the commune where he lives with his wife, Sally. The security is essential: Last November a letter bomb addressed to Mugabe killed one worker and injured four others. Despite the risks, Mugabe slips across the Rhodesian border every couple of weeks for conferences with his field officers—and to let his vakomana ("boys in the bush") see that he is no swivel-chair commander. Though ZANU forces kept a low profile during the week-long voting, Mugabe was expected to mount a major strike shortly thereafter. His strategy reportedly calls for ZANU to consolidate rural holdings—and then hit at the communication and transport systems of the cities. "We're prepared," Mugabe says, "to fight to the last man." Right now the combined rebel forces total 50,000, with an estimated two-thirds of them Mugabe's. Nkomo boasts better weapons (Soviet-supplied), but Mugabe has a more favorable strategic position, with over 10,000 of his Chinese-equipped troops inside Rhodesia.

Mugabe's biography is a model for the making of a Marxist rebel. A farmer's son born in a thatched hut 70 miles from Rhodesia's capital, Salisbury, he was one of a select few black pupils at Kutama Catholic mission school. He earned two bachelor's degrees (in history and education) from South African colleges and taught grammar school before racism in the education system convinced him he would never be promoted. He tried teaching in Ghana, where he met and married Sally Heyaffron, but in 1959 Mugabe abandoned the classroom to help start a national liberation movement. He was arrested in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison.

While there, he bitterly recalls, the Smith regime forbade him to attend the funeral of his son, who died at 4 of encephalitis. Mugabe pressed on, gaining more degrees in education, law and administration in the belief he would one day be called upon to lead a black Zimbabwe. Two years after his release in 1974 he was chosen head of ZANU when the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, the (now protesting) runner-up in the recent election, was expelled for jockeying for personal position under Smith's internal settlement. It is an error Mugabe is unlikely to repeat. "The regime is illegal and has no right to create a settlement scheme," he says. "We are the de facto government of the country."