After Zimbabwe -- a conference on Namibia

By , Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

No startling breakthroughs are expected from this week's Namibian conference in Geneva. Although it is modeled upon the successful all-parties meeting in 1979 that ended the Rhodesian conflict, the Namibian circumstances are very different, and the time is not yet fully right.

The conference is ostensibly about how to implement UN Security Council Resolution 435, which specifies the procedure to be followed in bringing about a transfer of power in Namibia from South Africa, via an election, to representatives of the indigenous majority. But there has still been no conclusive agreement to that transfer in the tortuous negotiations since 1977 between South Africa and the Western contact group (the US, Britain, France, West Germany, And Canada), between South Africa and the UN, and between the contact group and the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), Namibia's only guerrilla group.

The bargaining differences between South Africa and SWAPO have been narrowed down almost to the point where they cannot be said to exist. However, the absence of outstanding sharp disagreements over the procedures to follow when both sides disengage, implement a cease-fire, and contest an election under UN supervision does not mean that no psychological fears remain.

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The South Africans, who now expect SWAPO to win any election, seek constitutional safeguards for whites and other minorities of the kind that Ian Smith's followers obtained in what is now Zimbabwe. At Geneva, private talks in hotels and corridors will be about such constitutional guarantees.

South Africa is also using the conference to begin a process of removing Namibia as an issue in its own domestic politics. By choosing to withdraw into the background at the conference, and instead putting forward its new administrator-general in Namibia and a motley indigenous delegation dominated by the leaders of the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), South Africa hopes to make the DTA party to any final settlement of Namibia's future. By that means, the ruling National Party in South Africa might avoid being accused of "giving away" Namibia to nationalists. (The DTA is a multiracial political party backed by South Africa.)

South Africa's attempt to avoid negotiating directly with SWAPO almost aborted the Geneva meeting. Likewise, South Africa's refusal to meet in Mozambique and Zambia, and SWAPO's aversion to a meeting in Mauritius or Botswana, led reluctantly to Geneva.

Neither side trusts the other. South Africa has long refused even to contemplate talking to SWAPO because of its Soviet backing. SWAPO has long refused to acknowledge the existence of the DTA, even after it won an election in 1978 (which was boycotted by SWAPO, most of whose leaders had been forced to flee the country).

Sam Nujoma, who has not returned to Namibia essentially since 1960, is SWAPO's chief. Canny and determined, he survived internecine rivalries in the 1960s and, with Zambian help, a major attempted schism in 1975. Last year he purged his vice-president and those SWAPO officials who came from the Caprivi region of Namibia.

It is not clear that Mr. Nujoma, an exile with many cards still to play, needs a settlement as much as his African backers (Angola, primarily, but also Nigeria, Zambia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe). Those African countries have been influential in the past in bringing Mr. Nujoma to the bargaining table. It has not always been evident that the Soviets, who fund SWAPO, have the same interests. However, SWAPO is militarily weak, with no hope in the near future of compelling South Africa to withdraw.

If anything, South Africa has demonstrated its unlimited military control over the northern border area of Namibia. But that control costs at least $500, 000 a day, a price that no defender wishes to pay forever.

Nujoma's only well-known rival has been held in South Africa's best known maximum security prison since 1968. Hermann Toivo ja Toivo, schooled by Finnish Lutheran missionaries, was a schoolteacher, a corporal in a South African transport corps during World War II, and a factory worker in Cape Town before he founded what became SWAPO in 1958. Nujoma subsequently joined the political movement and went overseas to be its leader. Toivo was, however, restricted to Namibia until being arrested in 1966 and tried for treason. Both Toivo and Nujoma are Ovambo, from Namibia's north.

Neither Toivo's remarkable speech after being sentenced in 1968 to 20 years in prison on Robben Island, nor those who know his more recent views and have seen him in prison, stamp Toivo as a Marxist. If South Africa releases him unconditionally in the after- math of the Geneva meeting, or as a result of a newfound tactical sense, it is conceivable that he could provide the ingredient necessary to bridge those psychological gaps which still separate South Africa and SWAPO.

The Reagan administration is another ingredient. Wisely it chose to distance itself from preparation for the Geneva meeting. South Africa will probably thus defer any conclusions to the Namibian imbroglio until the policies of General Haig and his State Department team are established. But however innovative General Haig may wish to be, the American options have long ago been narrowed by the involved bargaining which has at least brought the various parties to Geneva. Toivo represents a new, salutary addition to the limited range of alternatives for a peaceful resolution the Namibian conflict.

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