Lisbon — No one promised that securing a settlement of the Namibian conflict would be quick or easy. After 15 years of warfare, South Africa and SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization) guerrillas have a lot invested in their divergent positions.
Namibia has also always been an extremely divisive issue in an extremely divided Angola, a former Portuguese colony.
For years, any idea that there were other means of securing Namibia's independence than through the armed victory of SWAPO was tantamount to selling out to South Africa. It is a sign of just how exhausted Angola's resources have been by the continuing confrontation with South Africa that Angola President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has now thrown his full weight behind the negotiations with the five nations known as the Western ''contact group.''
To do so, the Angolan President first had to consult with Angola's traditional allies in the Soviet bloc. He seems to have got the green light, but there will be a heavy price to pay if the West's efforts fail. Angola has been in the throes of a power struggle ever since the death of its first president, Agostinho Neto.
President Neto died on an operating table in Moscow in September 1979 just after he had put out feelers to the West about serious negotiations with South Africa to settle the Namibian problem.
The end of the undeclared war with South Africa would change everything in Angola itself. It would have the effects of a second revolution that would not necessarily please all those now in comfortable positions of power. The Namibian independence negotiations could in that sense prove a test of how much authority President Santos has managed to establish.
The Western ''contact group'' got off to a promising start in its effort to mediate in the conflict when it secured Angola's encouragement for its efforts, but there were bound to be hitches. The first hitch came from Angola last week when the country's only newspaper published a warning that the Luanda regime did not have the patience to wait for the success of diplomatic maneuvers when a large part of its territory was under South African control.
The article was issued by Angola's official news agency, Angop, and clearly carried authority even if it did not formally commit the Angolan government.
The thrust of the Angolan warning was that the contact group (the United States, Canada, France, Britain, and West Germany) should get Pretoria to end the military stranglehold it is exerting on Angola's southern region if the group wants to be sure of Luanda's backing for their latest proposals.
The alternative was clear enough: Angola will otherwise feel free to call on the help of its foreign friends to drive the South Africans out by force without waiting for the result of the group's new shuttle diplomacy.
Angop added a second cautionary note in another article that quotes official sources as saying Angola would adopt a common stance on the Western proposals with SWAPO and the other frontline states.
However, Angop stressed that Angola had made no official comment on the proposed constitutional guidelines for an independent Namibia. It specifically denied that Luanda had agreed in principle to the proposals and it gave no indication that Angolan authorities had raised major objections to the proposals.
Early last week, a few hours after the five-nation team had left Angola for South Africa, confident that it had won Luanda's leaders over to its strategy for Namibian independence, the Angolan Defense Ministry announced that the South African Army had struck 120 miles into its southern region, launching a new offensive against the border province of Cunene.
Pretoria immediately denied that its Army was involved in Angola and hinted that if there was any fighting in southern Angola it was between the Luanda regime and the guerrillas of the South African-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)