FOR the first time since Angola became independent in 1975, it looks as though the former Portuguese colony in southern Africa can anticipate the end of civil war. In the mid-'70s Angola became a major staging ground for Moscow's strategy to end-run the superpower stalemate in Europe by consolidating Soviet gains in the third world. The Soviets, together with Cuba, threw their weight behind the Marxist Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA). In turn the US, with South Africa, made a major commitment to Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
The 15 years of continuous warfare cost more than 300,000 lives and virtually destroyed Angola's agriculture- and oil-based economy.
But in the new spirit of cooperation that marks superpower relations, the United States and the Soviet Union have agreed to cut off the military aid that has fueled the war. Cuba's decision to withdraw its large force has further enhanced the prospects for political settlement.
Now, after five rounds of talks sponsored by Portugal and aided by the superpowers, the MPLA and UNITA are poised to declare a cease-fire next month and set a date for elections. Negotiated breakthroughs include agreement on a multiparty system and the abandonment of strictly Marxist economic principles.
Tricky problems remain. Angola is bitterly divided - far more than was so in neighboring Namibia - making a difficult climate for elections. Who will bear the cost of international supervision of the voting? And what will be the role of the charismatic and mercurial Savimbi?
Yet the progress is solid. The parties seem determined to resolve problems, and not to slip back into war. Combined with hopeful political developments in Mozambique, another former Portuguese colony plagued by 15 years of strife, and in South Africa, Angola's gains portend an era of stability and rapid economic growth for southern Africa.