WALVIS BAY, SOUTH AFRICA — WALVIS BAY, a symbol of Namibian economic dependence on South Africa, could soon enter a period of joint rule as Pretoria prepares to relinquish exclusive control over the territory's only deep-water port. ``I think South Africa and Namibia will achieve an understanding on Walvis Bay in the near future - probably before the end of the year,'' said a senior diplomatic source in Windhoek.
Walvis Bay, a vital 800-square-mile enclave sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert, was annexed by the British 115 years ago.
It was held briefly by the Germans during World War I, but has been administered by South Africa for the past 75 years under a 1920 League of Nations mandate.
The United Nations revoked the mandate in 1966. The enclave's population of 26,000 - about half of which is white - is divided on merger with Namibia.
Walvis Bay is the only deep-water port that breaks the inhospitable 2,000-mile coastline between Cape Town, South Africa, and Luanda, Angola.
It is jealously eyed by landlocked southern African states, like Zimbabwe and Malawi, which are dependent on eastern ports like Beira and Maputo in Mozambique. If Namibia controlled Walvis Bay, those states would have a three-week advantage in exports to Western Europe.
During South Africa's disputed custodianship of Namibia, the rich surrounding waters were heavily overfished by foreign trawlers. Namibia's new government has imposed a 200-mile territorial limit in a bid to revive the once-booming fishing industry.
Regarded by the South African Navy as part of its defense strategy, Walvis Bay has been widely viewed in diplomatic circles as Pretoria's ``insurance'' against a hostile Namibian regime. But it is now being seen in Pretoria as the ``gateway to Africa.''
On March 21, during the run up to Namibian independence, South Africa bolstered its military base in the enclave. Today, however, Pretoria has begun demilitarizing and appears ready to enter into talks with the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) government to discuss its future status.
``Our government is about to start negotiations with Pretoria,'' said Namibian President Sam Nujoma in an interview in Windhoek. ``The South Africans are willing to negotiate the status of Walvis Bay.''
South African officials prefer to use the word ``discuss'' - rather than ``negotiate'' - but the goodwill between the two countries is tangible. President Frederik de Klerk was invited in March to attend the independence celebrations, where he had access to world leaders whom it might have taken years to reach through regular channels.
As it was, he secured meetings with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, United States Secretary of State James Baker III, and Angolan President Jos'e Eduardo dos Santos.
The most immediate benefit to South Africa of a phased handing over of Walvis Bay would come from the opening of trade with Angola.
South Africa is eager to buy Angolan oil that could be landed in Cape Town more cheaply than Middle Eastern supplies. South African Mineral and Energy Affairs Minister Dawie de Villiers met early this month with his Angolan counterpart in Luanda to discuss oil purchases.
Stable relations have emerged from the UN-sponsored process leading to Namibia's independence from South Africa. The two countries have waived visa formalities and South African representative Riaan Eksteen, one of Pretoria's most experienced diplomats, functions as an ambassador in all but name.
SWAPO officials believe that the next move by Pretoria is likely to be a softening of its position on the status of Walvis Bay.
``The general view expressed by others is that Pretoria would want to agree on an interim period of joint administration,'' says Theo Ben-Gurirab, Namibia's foreign minister.
``If that is the idea, it is something we could live with.... The precise mechanics could then be discussed.''
His view represents a departure from former hard-line attitudes on Walvis Bay, which South Africa claims as its own.
The enclave's status did not form part of the UN independence plan, whereby Namibia won its independence last March.
Namibia, in its Constitution, also claims the territory. South African officials have been adamant over the years that the South African flag would always fly over Walvis Bay.
But because of the changing political landscape in South Africa, Pretoria is anxious to keep Walvis Bay from becoming a focus of conflict.
Western nations involved in formulating the Namibian independence plan in the 1970s agreed to leave the status of Walvis Bay to discussions between Pretoria and an independent Namibian government.
The African National Congress has already begun lobbying on the Walvis Bay issue in support of SWAPO, and Pretoria is mindful that it could soon be reintroduced as an issue at the UN.
``We want to deal with Walvis Bay out of our own volition rather than under pressure,'' a Pretoria official said.
Third in a series of three articles. Previous articles appeared Sept. 12 and Sept. 17.