Johannesburg — At the Palais des Nations in Geneva, one-time headquarters of the ill-fated League of Nations, the history of one of Africa's last colonial legacies appears to be coming full circle.
Namibia (South-West Africa), a huge and sparsely populated desert country looking out on the South Atlantic, was a German colony mandated by the league to the government of South Africa in 1920.
On Jan. 7, the major protagonists in a 35-year legal wrangle for its control came together to hammer out the terms of a settlement that would lead the territory to independence by the end of the year and end an increasingly bloody guerrilla war on its borders.
It is a daunting prospect facing the participants, covering the political spectrum from the United Nations to white-ruled South Africa, and from the Soviet-backed South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) to the South African-backed Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), and a motley assortment of other political parties.
Namibia's significance is that, in the wake of the settlement in Zimbabwe, it is now the front-line of conflict between black Africa and the white-ruled south. Moreover, in spite of its modest population of barely 1 million in a country of 300,000 square miles, it does boast disproportionate mineral wealth, with major deposits of diamonds, uranium, copper, zinc, lead, and tin.
That importance is underlined by the presence at the negotiating table of senior diplomats as observers from the five leading Western states at the United Nations -- the United States, Britain, France, West Germany, and Canada -- and six African countries. It was also stressed by UN Secretary- General Kurt Waldheim at the opening ceremony: The prospects of failure, he declared, would be "steadily more disastrous for everyone concerned."
Yet the prospects for success are poor.
Ironically, it is the very shadow of the successful Zimbabwe independence agreement that is now clouding the Namibia talks. "We walk with the ghost of Lancaster House," declared Dirk Mudge, chairman of the South Africa- backed DTA, as he left for the conference. (Lancaster House in London was the site of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia independence talks.)
The sweeping victory by the guerrilla forces of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo in the Zimbabwe elections last February has left both the South African government and its proteges in Namibia with a very real concern that the same could happen for SWAPO in Namibia.
On the other hand, Sam Nujoma, SWAPO's president, has been persuaded by the leaders of southern Africa's black front-line states to ignore the opposition of the Soviet Union and attend the talks because they believe he would win any subsequent election.
The plan being offered to South Africa is essentially the same as that drawn up by the five Western powers almost three years ago: a cease-fire in the guerrilla war being waged along the northern Namibian border, followed by UN- supervised elections for a constituent assembly, which would draw up an independence constitution.
Although all the major points have been agreed upon before the latest talks, Pretoria has one remaining doubt: It challenges the impartiality of the UN, whose General Assembly has already recognized SWAPO as the "sole, authentic representative of the people of Namibia."
Even if the UN can find a formula to prove its fairness, Pretoria still has to weigh up the consequences of an agreement.
On the one hand, the guerrilla war against SWAPO is looking like an increasingly costly stalemate. According to South African figures, more than 1, 400 guerrillas died in 1980, against 83 South African soldiers and 35 civilians. But SWAPO can still field between 6,000 and 8,000 men because of fresh recruitment, while South Africa has at least 20,000 troops tied down on the remote Namibia-Angola border.
On the other hand, a SWAPO victory in the planned elections could prove fatal for the South Africa government of Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha. It would cause a serious right-wing backlash from white voters, and at the same time provide a tremendous fillip to radical blacks within South Africa, who are seeking majority rule in that country.