Johannesburg — Hopes for an international settlement in Namibia (South-West Africa) have slipped a little with the dissolution of the internal government in the territory and the reimposition of direct rule by South Africa.
However, the development comes as no surprise. Relations between the governing Namibian party, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), and South Africa have been increasingly strained for the past year or so.
The resignation of Namibia's Council of Ministers Jan. 18 and the immediate reimposition of direct rule from Pretoria ends a five-year effort by South Africa to build the DTA into moderate multiracial coalition that could win an independence election.
The question now: With no other credible party of its own, will Pretoria consent to hold an election in the territory?
Analysts here believe Pretoria's answer to that question is probably that no answer is yet required. A Western initiative to gain independence for Namibia shows tantalizing signs of progress. But the issues to be ironed out are so complicated that even optimists do not expect a settlement to come quickly.
South Africa does not appear to feel any sense of urgency on the Namibian issue. Both it and the United States (one of the Western nations seeking a Namibian settlement) insist that a Namibian settlement be linked to withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.
''As far as Pretoria is concerned, the ball is in the other court. It is up to the United States (leading the Western effort) to get the Cubans out,'' says Michael Spicer of the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Even if the demand for Cuban withdrawal from Angola was resolved, the United Nations resolution that sets out the terms of an election calls for a seven-month run-up period - perhaps enough time for Pretoria to form another type of Namibian election alliance if it decides to end its rule of the territory.
South Africa claims it is serious about wanting out of Namibia. But many analysts are skeptical.
These observers say that in South Africa's point of view, recent developments on the South African political scene are earning it pats on the back from the West. These pats make a Namibia settlement less impelling as a means of placating international criticism of South Africa.
The developments they refer to concern a government proposal to allow Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) and Indians to have a role in the central government of South Africa. The Colored Labor Party has accepted the plan, giving it a measure of credibility among nonwhites. Labor backing reinforces those who consider the plan legitimate ''reform,'' even though it does not include blacks, who make up more than 70 percent of the country's population.
This process of ''constitutional reform'' is clearly the top issue in South Africa, well ahead of Namibia.
The dissolution of Namibia's internal government was brought on by the resignations of the Council of Ministers, led by Dirk Mudge, the council chairman and leader of the DTA. Mr. Mudge came to power in 1978 when the DTA won an internal election boycotted by SWAPO - the black nationalist group fighting for control of Namibia.
Mudge's departure does not disappoint Pretoria, which had some time ago lost hope that he could win an independence election. But internal politics in Namibia are now so fractured that it is not clear where South Africa can turn for a new alliance and candidate with a chance of beating SWAPO. Many analysts feel no such animal exists.
South Africa's return to direct rule of Namibia may be a sign that a settlement is at best not immediately in sight. But there are still some signs of progress.
Preparations appear to be under way for a second face-to-face meeting between South Africa and Angolan officials. The first was in December in the Cape Verde Islands.
The other development analysts are watching is a reported shake-out of radical members of Angola's ruling MPLA party. Some say such a event could pave the way for reconciliation between the MPLA and the rebel UNITA movement. That could reduce need for Cuban troops to protect the MPLA.