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Africa offers foreign policy pluses for Reagan despite elusive Namibia settlement

By David WinderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 1984

AT a time when the Reagan administration has little to rejoice over in foreign policy, Africa is proving a plus. Strategically, United States prestige on the African continent is gaining at the expense of the Soviet Union.

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More radical socialist states, like Guinea, are starting to think more seriously about Western alternatives to address their critical problems. The attitudes of their leaders are shifting even if those countries have not yet turned the corner in practice.

Moscow is already unhappy about intensive US diplomacy in southern Africa that is designed, in part, to limit opportunities for Soviet mischief-making.

South Africa's unprecedented nonag-gression treaty with Mozambique, its Marxist black African neighbor, is as much a coup for South Africa as it is for Washington, which served as the go-between. Washington sees the Mozambique-South Africa pact, which is intended to curb guerrilla activities, as a possible forerunner to other peaceful accommodations in Africa and believes it served as a catalyst in ending one of the logjams over Namibia (South-West Africa).

There is broad bipartisan support in Congress for efforts to rescue Africa's hard-pressed economies. An important voice in Washington summed up the situation:

''They have a perception Africa is in bad shape and is going down the tubes.''

Reagan administration offers of humanitarian assistance to Africa, where economic distress is compounded by devastating drought, meet almost no opposition in Congress. The administration requested $90 million in African food aid. Congress has pushed for $60 million on top of that.

Much of the Reagan administration's energies right now though are concentrated on the black-white divide in the southern half of the African continent. Here the administration believes it is winning a long and arduous diplomatic battle. US officials seem to be trying to curb their optimism about securing a broad peace in southern Africa. Nobody in Washington wants to appear overly confident about finally clinching a settlement on Namibia. In fact, this past weekend's talks in Zambia on this subject show how difficult such negotiations can be.

At the outset, the Reagan administration counted on a Namibian settlement as one of its first foreign policy successes. But peace signals over Namibia have been as plentiful as the flowers in spring and have withered just as quickly.

WIDESPREAD skepticism persists over whether the US really has the clout to budge South Africa or whether South Africa itself, despite protestations to the contrary, seriously intends to leave the vast, mineral-rich territory of Namibia. South Africa has never relinquished the mandate the League of Nations gave it to run the adjacent territory, even though the United Nations has asked Pretoria to give up its control.

Yet Washington is increasingly confident that South Africa now genuinely wants an honorable settlement in Namibia, provided its own security concerns can be met.

What encourages Washington is a feeling that in recent months a new chemistry is at work in the region. South Africa itself is seen to be primarily responsible for this decisive shift.

In the administration's eyes, evidence of this shift is seen in (1) South Africa's readiness to make a pact with Mozambique, (2) its willingness to withdraw its troops from southern Angola, and (3) its decision to allow the South West Africa People's Organization, the Namibian guerrilla organization, to sit down at the peace table.

Many Africa-watchers who were burned in the past by apparent South African offers to work toward peace recall only too readily subsequent retractions by South Africa in the light of ''new'' obstacles.

A cruder view is that if South Africa is posing as the promoter of peace in the region, it is only because it has succeeded in using its superior military muscle to club its weaker neighbors into submission and can now afford to appear more conciliatory.

Yet American and non-American diplomatic sources say such an oversimpli-fication of the pacification of southern Africa fails to take into account the fine tuning of American diplomatic efforts.