United Nations, N.Y. — On a clear day, diplomats can see the independence of Namibia in the not-too-distant future.
But this may be an optical illusion. For as negotiations move forward, independence for Namibia seems to keep moving further down the horizon.
On the surface of things, progress has been achieved recently on bridging the gaps between South Africa, the ''front-line'' states (Angola, Zambia, Mozambique , Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Botswana), and the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO).
Diplomats from the Western ''contact group'' who have been shuttling for three years between the parties also voice cautious optimism.
But below the surface, South Africa's icy attitude toward giving up control of the mineral-rich territory has not even begun to thaw, according to a senior Western official:
''P. W. Botha is just playing for time, as always,'' he says. ''The Reagan administration's 'all carrot and no stick' attitude toward South Africa has not led him to mellow his stance. Quite the opposite.''
Indeed, the Reagan administration, though it does not say so publicly, still places a higher priority on getting Cuban troops out of Angola and on striking up an anti-Soviet partnership with South Africa than on helping Namibia become independent, according to well-placed Western sources.
With regard to Namibia, US diplomacy is moving on two tiers simultaneously:
Tier 1 involves a two-stage negotiation between the contact group (United States, Canada, Great Britain, West Germany, and France) and the parties (South Africa, the front-line states, and SWAPO) to agree on the implementation of the UN plan for independence.
Tier 2 involves a possible Namibian Camp David - a face-to-face negotiation between South Africa and SWAPO, with the US mediating, aimed at a global package settlement.
Negotiations on Tier 2 are carried out in secret by the US in bilateral talks with Angolan and South African representatives. The UN and other contact group partners are told very little about what is happening in those talks.
On Tier 1 Pretoria and the African parties recently have accepted Western-proposed guidelines for a constitution for an independent Namibia. The guidelines would protect private property and white-minority rights, among other things.
However, the front-line states have objected to the proposed voting system. Based on the West German electoral system, half the seats of Namibia's Constituent Assembly would be filled by proportional representation, the other half by individuals elected from single-member constituencies. This can be viewed as a one-man, two-vote system. It is seen as too complicated by the front-line states, which are willing to adopt one system or the other, but not a mix of the two.
Thus, Phase 1 of the Tier 1 negotiations has run into a snag. And Phase 2, which was to start in early January, will be further delayed.
Phase 2 is viewed as more complicated than Phase 1. It involves determining the size and composition of UN forces to be stationed in Namibia as well as ''confidence-building'' measures to alleviate South Africa's fears of what it calls the UN's lack of impartiality in supervising the elections.
The Western powers have told South Africa time and again that once the UN plan starts to be implemented, previous pro-SWAPO resolutions adopted by the General Assembly would be automatically disregarded and the UN would be guided only by Security Council Resolution 435. But South Africa has turned a deaf ear to these arguments.
Just two weeks ago South Africa sent a letter to Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, telling him that he ''has demonstrated his inability to act in a just and unbiased manner.'' Analysts here expect South Africa to protest ''the UN's lack of impartiality'' to further stall the negotiations.
Meanwhile, on Tier 1, US Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker recently met in London with Brand Furie, director-general of South Africa's Foreign Ministry, and with Angolan Foreign Minister Paulo Jorge in Paris. Reportedly, he offered Angola US diplomatic recognition and economic help after Cuban troops leave, while South Africa would withdraw its troops from Namibia. The US would guarantee Angola against further South African incursions into its territory and pledge not to support Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angloa (UNITA).
Thus the US would score successes on in North-South (independence of Namibia) and East-West (departure of the Cubans) fronts at the same time.
But basically, says one African ambassador closely involved in the process, ''the Reagan administration has not changed its spots.
''It has agreed to pursue the 'contact group' exercise in order not to embarrass its Western partners.
''But at its highest level of authority it remains committed to stand shoulder to shoulder with South Africa and to press for an independent Namibia only if such conditions can be set up to ensure the defeat of SWAPO and the victory of the pro-South African DTA (Democratic Turnahlle Alliance).''
US officials dismiss these accusations and claim that South Africa will announce sometime this year a date for the start of the implementation of the UN plan.
''Time will tell,'' says a European close to the scene.