Johannesburg — Hopes for an early settlement to the war in Namibia (South-West Africa), which claimed more than 1,600 lives over the past year, are ebbing here in South Africa.
The strongest signal pointing to further delays comes from Pretoria's new plan to reorganize the internal government of the disputed territory.
Like nearly all actions taken by South Africa regarding Namibia, the meaning of this internal government initiative is regarded as ambiguous by knowledgeable observers and informed diplomatic sources. Some view the attempt to build a new territorial government as a signal that South Africa has no intention of ultimately submitting to a free election in Namibia. Elections are an objective of current negotiations being led by the United States and other Western nations.
But even should Pretoria be angling for an internationally supervised election - which some say may be another, more charitable interpretation to give to the Namibian reorganization - South Africa seems to have concluded any election is not foreseeable within the next year. Most observers reckon it would take at least that long for a new territorial government to gain cohesion and establish a track record that would enhance its election chances against SWAPO (South-West Africa Peoples Organization) guerrillas fighting for independence.
The South African administrator general of Namibia, Danie Hough, has been asked by Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha to submit a framework for a new territorial government this week. Precisely what Mr. Botha wants is unclear, but he has spoken of the need for more ''effective'' and ''representative'' government in Namibia.
Generally, Pretoria's aim appears to be to broaden the territory's central government, now dominated by the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance. Pretoria has for years backed the DTA party and its leader, Dirk Mudge, as the best alternative to SWAPO.
If nothing else, the interim government initiative makes clear Pretoria has lost some confidence in the DTA. In 1978, the party won control of Namibia's National Assembly in an election boycotted by SWAPO and other internal political parties. Over time, the party's inability to do away with a segregationist government structure (imposed by South Africa) may have weakened its elections chances. Fragmentation within the party may also weakened its strength.
Meanwhile, negotiations to bring independence to Namibia are continuing, and informed diplomatic sources say the talks are making progress.
The talks are going on in two arenas. One concerns all the details of an election as outlined in United Nations Resolution 435. One key issue is the impartiality of the United Nations as overseer of any election. The UN officially views South Africa's control of the territory as illegal. In the past this issue, and questions of who would monitor elections and how, have proved insurmountable. But Prime Minister Botha insisted recently that these issues can be ''solved relatively easily.''
The second arena of the talks involves mainly the United States and Angola - discussions aimed at the removal of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Cuban troops in Angola.
Pretoria has insisted an agreement on Cuban withdrawl must be part of a settlement in Namibia. South Africa has said it fears Cuban influence and infiltration of a new Namibian government. But a Cuban withdrawal might also lessen a conservative white backlash in South Africa to a settlement.
No one underestimates the difficulty of achieving a Cuban departure, particularly since the Cubans play a role in protecting the Angolan government against rebel UNITA (Union for the Total Independence of Angola) forces operating within the country.
The incentives for Angola are the financial savings that would be realized from a Cuban withdrawal, and probable diplomatic recognition by the United States.