Why S. Africa decided to pull back on Namibia

"South Africa has made an assessment of the situation and decided to pull back from an agreement to let go of Namibia for the time being." So says a high Western government official explaining the collapse of a conference convened last week in Geneva to deal with the future of Namibia (South-West Africa).

South Africa is seen to have snubbed the United Nations as well as the five Western nations [the United States, Canada, Britain, France, and West Germany] that had put together the UN plan for the independence of the South African-held territory.

According to this Western official with intimate knowledge of South Africa's domestic situation, Pretoria's decision to put off independence for Namibia was based on these considerations:

* The importance of preserving South Africa's strategic and economic [ minerals] interests in Namibia at this time.

* The way the elections in Zimbabwe turned out. Prime minister Robert Mugabe's reasonable behavior does not impress South African officials, who believed that "a leopard does not change its spots."

* The belief that if elections were to be held shortly in Namibia, the internal parties which constituted the Turnhalle Democratic Alliance, which is closer to the South African position, would be snowed under and the insurgent SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization) would come to power.

The Reagan victory in the US, according to sources here, "has not been a decisive factor in South Africa's reappraisal of its position." It has only been seen as making it easier for South Africa to hold out on the diplomatic front.

Since it is clear that the African countries will go to the Security Council next month and press for sanctions, including an oil embargo, against South Africa, a US veto to block such a move is now more likely in the view of South Africa. Pretoria will no doubt remind the new US administration that it is protecting Western strategic interests in southern Africa against Soviet expansionists.

At Geneva, three years of patient, intense, dedicated effort by Western and UN negotiators collapsed when Namibia's Administrator General Danie Hough, appointed by South Africa, stated that "it was too early to set a date for the implementation of the Security Council Resolution 435" (which embodies the UN plan accepted three years ago by Pretoria). He added that "time for reflecting was needed."

Dirk Mudge, chairman of the Turnhalle Democratic Alliance, claimed that the implementation of the UN plan, including a ceasefire and UN supervised elections , was "premature" because "time was needed to establish a climate of trust" in the UN to supervise the elections impartially."

This argument was bluntly rejected by all diplomats close to the negotiating process. "The reverse argument can be made since the UN will hold practically no power during the elections, while South Africa would still be able to use its considerable economic and military presence in Namibia to influence the voters," says one Western ambassador sensitive to South Africa's point of view.

Western officials insist that this time the responsibility for the failure to achieve an agreement be put squarely on South Africa. "In public and in private , SWAPO, its African friends, and ourselves leaned backward in Geneva to accommodate the South Africans and to meet every single one of their demands, including assurances for constitutional guarantees concerning their strategic and economic interests in Namibia and the protection of the rights of the white minority," says one Western ambassador.

One reason advanced at Geneva by South African officials for the lack of trust in the UN is that SWAPO has been given preferential treatment by the UN General Assembly.

South African diplomats now claim that "the door has not been closed." Western diplomats, however, are firm in their belief that it has been slammed, at least for the foreseeable future.

"One consequence of this should be US veto sanctions against South Africa, [ with] increased tensions between the US and African nations including some, like oil-rich Nigeria, which could make life more difficult for the West," says one noted Africa-w atcher.

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