Namibia, the last remaining colonial territory in Africa, now has more than an even chance to become independent next year. An international conference, much in the style of Lancaster House which helped Rodesia evolve into independent Zimbabwe, is likely to be convened before the end of the year, under the presidency of UN Secretary- General Kurt Waldheim , according to wellplaced diplomats.
It will bring South Africa and the major guerrilla organization SWAPO (South-West African People's Organization) face to face at the negotiating table. Officials of the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance led by white politician Dirk Mudge will be seated as members of South Africa's delegation.
The six so-called frontline states (Angola, Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana, Tanzamia, and Zimbabwe) and the five Western nations (the United States, Britain , Canada, France, and West Germany) that played an active role in mediating between the UN and Pretoria would be present backstage. The sites most often mentioned for this conference are Cape Verde and Paris.
South Africa and Angola have been talking to each other actively and directly -- if discreetly -- for several months. The feelers, very timid at first, rapidly turned into serious discussions. The other frontline states gave these contacts their cautious approval. According to one key official, "south Africa and SWAPO are now like a boy and a girl eyeing each other at a party. Neither has asked the other to dance and the music is not yet playing. But a certain mutual interest is being displayed."
The example of the successful Lancaster House conference acted as a catalyst. It can be said that a sort of peace dynamics is now at work and drawing the interested parties to come to an arrangement.
According to officials closely involved in the peace process, South Africa aims at striking a global deal with SWAPO.
In conformity with the UN plan the South Africans would permit free elections in which SWAPO is expected to come out on top and lead the country to majority rule. In return, South Africa would receive constitutional guarantees for its economic and security interests in Namibia, as well as assurances of an enhanced role for the Turnhalle Alliance.
SWAPO, according to the same sources, knowing the guerrilla warfare would not lead it to power for many years to come, might have decided to forgo some of its political objectives and to rule Namibia, much in the manner former revolutionary Robert Mugabe runs Zimbabwe, with moderation and realism.
On many issues South Africa and SWAPO still stand very far apart, but apparently there is enough common ground between their present bargaining positions so that they feel it may be useful to sit down together and sort out their differences.
According to one expert who has followed the process for three years, "What the constitutional conference would do is to take South Africa and SWAPO for a while on a parallel route, which would allow them to strike a bargain, after which they would go back to the main UN paved avenue."
Some diplomats who have been disappointed many times by what they call "South Africa's constructive ambiguity" remain skeptical and believe that South Africa may again just be bidding for time. The majority view, among specialists and diplomats concerned with the problem, is that a breakthrough has been achieved and that the peace process has become irreversible.
"South Africa is aware of the fact that solving the problem of Namibia in a way acceptable to itself and to the international community would give it a long respite -- say 10 or 15 years -- to come to grips with its internal problem. It has noticed that the African leaders refer to apartheid as an internal problem; not a colonial one.
Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere sees it that way, too, according to a very highranking Western official. Meanwhile Secretary-General Waldheim is sending Undersecretary for Political Affairs Brian Urquhart to Pretoria next month. Officially his mission is to set a date for the implementation of the UN plan. In fact, it aims at setting up the international conference under UN auspices which, in turn, would lead sometimes next year to the independence of mineral-rich Namibia.