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Namibia: the view from southern Africa

By Robert S. JasterRobert S. Jaster is a senior research associate with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, where he specializes in southern African security matters. He has just returned from southern Africa, where he discussed regional security issues with African officials. / July 23, 1981

Southern Africa leaders are deeply suspicious of the current United States initiative on Namibia. Yet at the same time they appear to be overly optimistic about its chances of success.

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Leaders in the front-line states -- Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Angola -- suspect that the initiative may be part of what they see as a marked US tilt toward South Africa, rather than an impartial seach for an equitable settlement in Namibia. They are particularly alarmed by US moves to lift the ban on military aid to UNITA, the Angolan guerrilla movement to which South Africa contributes both weapons and combat troops.

Most of the front-line governments seem inclined to suspend their judgment until the new initiative has had a chance. In two of these states I found an optimism that the Reagan administration may be in a stronger position than its predecessor to achieve a settlement. An analogy was drawn with the Rhodesian crisis, where a new Tory government succeeded in bringing off the long-sought peace settlement that had eluded previous Labour efforts.

In part this hope is based on a general notion that conservative governments are somehow tougher and more effective in forcing a solution on opposing parties. And in part it reflects a feeling that the South Africans will be more likely to accept a settlement urged on them by a sympathetic Reagan administration, realizing it is the best deal they could hope to get.

On specific issues, however, front-line governments have serious reservations about the current US initiative. The most serious concerns US policy toward Jonas Savimbi and UNITA. In none of the front-line states is there even a hint of sympathy or support for Savimbi. Whatever support he may once have had evaporated as the MPLA government in Angola consolidated its power and as UNITA became more closely identified with South Africa.

The probable reaction to a US decision to aid UNITA was summed up by a front-line foreign minister: "Right now, South Africa is our problem in Namibia. But if America aids Savimbi, then America, too, becomes our problem there."

The other major concern is to preserve UN Resolution 435, approved by the Security Council in 1978, which declares all Pretoria's unilateral acts in Namibia null and void and authorizes the creation of a UN Transitional Assistance Group to help the secretary-general carry out his mandate "to ensure early independence through free and fair elections under the supervision and control of the UN."

Front-line officials are wary of the US suggestion that future talks be "based on" Resolution 435. They note that it took several years to get everyone behind 435, which is the one action mandate to which all parties have agreed. Thus it must not be subject to negotiation or change, lest the whole carefully wrought structure come unglued.

The US proposal for a constitutional conference before independence is viewed with misgiving: would this not be a retreat from Resolution 435, which calls for elections first? Moreover, front-line officials see procedural difficulties since, unlike the Rhodesian situation, there is no colonial authority to resume interim authority; therefore, who would chair such a conference?