Namibia: the view from southern Africa

By , Robert 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.

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.

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.

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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?

Another major source of contention is the US notion of linking a Namibian settlement to the prior withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. There is no support among the front- line states for such a linkage. They find no fault with the Angola position that the Cubans are needed to defend the country against attack by South Africa or by a resurgent UNITA heavily backed by South African armor.

Even now Angola is a state under siege. South African troops roam the southern third of the country almost at will, seeking SWAPO concentrations, destroying the economic infrastructure, and causing widespread social disruption.

There are nonetheless signs that, once that threat has been removed, Angola will be eager to see the some 15,000 Cubans leave. Western sources in Angola report a growing disenchantment with the Cuban military presence, not least because of its cost: the salaries of Cuban troops are said to be paid by the Angolans in hard currency, and a Cuban private paid roughly $150 a month. If true, this means Angola is paying out perhaps $2 million to $3 million or more each month for Cuban protection.

Moreover, it is probably galling to Angola's leaders, who are try ing to instill a spirit of nationalism in the country's disparate peoples, to continue to depend on the Cubans for national survival.

South Africa doubts the SWAPO claim to have 70 percent support inside Namibia , but concedes that SWAPO probably would win an election held today. Yet South Africa's leadership appears unprepared, and has done nothing to prepare public opinion, for a SWAPO victory.

Why this utter rejection of a SWAPO-dominated Namibia? It is not that South African officials have an unrealistic or undifferentiated view of SWAPO. They speak at length and with evident knowledge of militants and moderates in the SWAPO leadership, and note that SWAPO is the only gerrilla movement to have chaplains (Lutheran) serving regularly with its armed forces. Moreover, there seems to be unanimous agreement in Pretoria that SWAPO has suffered a crippling setback during the past year at the hands of South African forces, and that the insurgency can be contained militarily for some time.

The reluctance to face up to a SWAPO victory appears to be based on two broad fears. First, that a SWAPO-run Namibia would bring in its wake a Soviet and Cuban presence on South Africa's immediate frontier: an absolutely intolerable contigency from South Africa's standpoint. And second, that a SWAPO administration would inevitably lead to the spread of radical social and political ideas among blacks within South Africa proper.

Whether or not these concerns are well- founded, they appear both real and difficult to deal with.

Naminia does not appear to have become a divisive political issue among South Africa's whites, nor within the ruling National Party. Since Prime Minister Botha is extremely hawkish on Namibia, it seems likely that any settlement which would meet with his approval would also be acceptable to his party's right wing. Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the South African attitude is precisely this absence of strong dissenting or even critical views within the National Party. There appears to have been no movement in the South African position on Namibia since the failed Geneva conference last January.

Like the front-line states, South Africa seems to hope f or a miracle from Washington.

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