United Nations, N.Y. — In increasing pressure for an oil embargo against the United States? "It could happen in a few months," warns one highly placed diplomat here. The pressure would not be over events in the volatile Middle East, but over a dispute involving a little-known territory that many Americans could not readily pinpoint on a world map.
The place is Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, a sandy, windswept former German colony on Africa's southwestern coast. The Republic of South Africa has, since 1966, occupied the territory in defiance of the United Nations. Although the South African government agreed in 1978 to a complex plan to bring Namibia to independence, there still is no firm agreement on just when that will occur.
South Africa has offered a number of reasons for delaying independence, but there is a growing consensus among diplomats here that there is only one real sticking point: the South African fear that a group called the South-West Africa Peoples' Organization (SWAPO) eventually will gain control of the territory.
For the past 14 years, SWAPO has fought a guerrilla war with South African forces occupying the territory. The South Africans desperately want to avoid -- or at least delay -- a SWAPO takeover, according to a number of well-placed analysts.
The reasons for that attitude are spawned in the complex crosscurrents of white South African politics. For one thing, South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha is involved in a power struggle within his own ruling National Party. Rightwingers in the party could charge that Mr. Botha "sold out" the 100 ,000 whites (out of a population of just over 1 million) in Namibia, should a left-leaning SWAPO government come to power.
Moreover, a SWAPO victory would buttress the notion that liberation can be advanced by guerrilla warfare. For South Africa's whites, that is a dangerous notion to gain currency in their own country, where the white minority rules a restive black populace that outnumbers it 4 to 1.
"Must the world be held hostage to the internal politics of South Africa?" asks one key African diplomat.
Yet the South African government is privately raising yet another argument for delaying independence -- one that is specifically pitched to the new Reagan administration in the United States. Citing SWAPO's backing by the Soviet Union and East Germany, the South Africans argue that a SWAPO takeover of Namibia would give the Communist bloc yet another foothold in mineral-rich southern Africa and advance a long-range Soviet goal of control of the earth's strategic raw materials.
Other observers see the matter differently, arguing that an end to the military conflict in Namibia -- with its attendant South African strikes at guerrilla bases in Angola and Zambia -- would leave the region free to concentrate on developmental needs. That would hasten the departure of the Russians, Cubans, and East Germans from the region, these analysts argue, since the Eastern bloc has proved ineffective in fostering economic growth in the region.
The South Africans dismiss that view as wishful thinking, however.
Nevertheless, the current United Nations plan for Namibian independence was largely the handiwork of the United States and four other Western countries (Britain, France, West Germany, and Canada). At a conference in Geneva earlier this month, a South African official said it was "premature" to set a date for implementation of that plan -- even though it has been over two years since the South Africans signaled their original agreement.
In the view of a number of African diplomats, the United States has a responsibility to push for speedy implementation -- or else lose the initiative and face the wrath of many third-world nations.
"People are getting impatient here," warns one African ambassador. And that impatience, in the view of one well-placed observer in the upper echelons of the UN, will take the form of heightened demands for economic sanctions against South Africa.
However, most observers predict that the Reagan administration -- in view of US investment in the country (now totaling some $2 billion) and American dependence on South African chrome and other vital minerals -- is likely to veto any sanctions vote in the UN Security Council.
But African nations want tomake any such decision a costly one for the United States. And, according to some diplomats, the most likely move will be to bring pressure to bear on Nigeria, the No. 2 supplier of American oil imports.
"What else can they do?" asks one top diplomat, noting that virtually every other method of forcing South Africa to give up its hold on Namibia seems to have failed.
"It's very serious," says a well-placed African diplomat. "It's the UN that's being challenged -- the credibility of the institution."
The Nigerians clearly are uncomfortable about talk of using their "oil weapon." Nevertheless, Nigerian President Alhaji Shehu Shagari has raised that possibility before. As pressure builds up on Nigeria for some dramatic gesture to underscore its commitment to Namibian independence, "It could become extremely serious for the United States," says a high UN official.