Namibian peace: give Geneva a chance

There are at least two reasons for looking beyond the pundits' pessimism about the current Geneva conference on independence for Namibia (South-West Africa). And, pessimism or not, there is every reason for all parties to sustain these first face-to-face negotiations with the seriousness and enthusiasm worthy of their goal.

The reasons for keeping pessimism in perspective include these:

* Whatever the outlook based on the public record, there is activity behind the scenes that, if known, might change that outlook. For example, such African "front-line" states as Angola and Tanzania could be bringing additional pressure on independence leader Sam Nujoma to reach a settlement in the interests of ending regional disruption. And South Africa could be undergoing fresh efforts at persuasion by the United States, Britain, and the other Western powers whose good offices brought the agreement setting the course for independence a few years ago.

* Whatever the pessimism about this conference, it should be remembered that hopes were not exactly high for the London Lancaster House conference that brought peace and independence to Zimbabwe. History makes plain that intractable situations canm be eased. As for the pessimism, it stems from the continual raising of new objections by Pretoria, which so far has appeared to place world opinion and United Nations mandate second to domestic political pressures against relinquishment of control over a resource-rich land. It may be to blunt such pressures that Pretoria is literally taking a back seat at Geneva, putting parties from Namibia up front as if to show it is responding to them and not simply giving something away.

Yet the Geneva conference marks a step forward in that there is a South African in the front row, Dannie Hough, the administrator general of South-West Africa.Pretoria may be calling the tune in any case. But it has shrunk from even this much open face-to-face negotiation with the other side.

This other side is SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization), with Sam Nujoma at its head. It is seen as the likely winner in the elections supposed to be carried out after a cease-fire under the independence plan. Yet the United Nationas General Assembly was not wise or helpful in designating SWAPO as the sole legitimate representative of the Namibian people. Even though the Security Council has refused to follow suit, South Africa was handed a strong debating point in questioning UN impartiality when it becomes time to supervise an election. The UN could contribute constructively by finding some way to eliminate this appearance of tilting toward one party in advance.

To be avoided at Geneva or later is what some are talking about now -- bargaining over what should be in the constitution of independent Namibia. The constitution is supposed to be fashioned by the constituent assembly elected in the first Namibian election. One awkward legacy of Lancaster House has been the devising of constitutional provisions rather than leaving them to elected representatives of the people. Provisions to protect whites in Namibia, for example, would in any event not be worth much unless the new government is disposed to protect them. And such a disposition could be better enhanced by a whole negotiating process carried out with good will and according to plan.

Geneva may not be the end of that process. But it deserves to be entered into as a potential st ride along the way rather than a foredoomed disappointment.

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