An ambitious three-stage diplomatic offensive against South Africa has been launched by the other African nations at the United Nations. This initiative will not only test the new US administration's African policy but it will also severely challenge the Western alliance and the ability of the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, FrancE, and Canada to talk and act jointly with regard to southern Africa as they have in the past few years.
The African diplomatic move, prompted by the collapse of the all-parties conference held in Geneva in January, and by South Africa's refusal to set a date for a cease-fire and for the implementation of the UN plan for Namibia's independence, comes in three successive rounds:
* A resumed session of the 35th General Assembly devoted exclusively to Namibia. It is aimed mainly at psychological warfare and at denoucing South Africa's "illegal occupation" of Namibia as well as "the exploitation of Namibia's mineral wealth by Western nations including the United States." On march 2, the first day of the resumed debate, South Africa was ejected from the General Assembly. It was the third time in six years South Africa's credentials were challenged and drew strong protests from the Pretoria government.
* A convening of the Security Council in april. An economic boycott -- including an oil embargo -- against South Africa will be requested under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter and is expected, according to reliable sources, to be met with at least two vetoes (the US and Britain).
* A meeting, presumably in May or June, of an emergency special session of the General Assembly under the "united for peace" procedure first used in 1950 after the invasion of South Korea by North Korea. Under a ruling adopted at the time, the General Assembly is empowered to make decisions on security matters when the Security Council is stymied by the obstruction of one of its members.
The African initiative was decided on at the nonaligned ministerial conference in New Delhi and again at the Organization of African Unity meeting in Addis Ababa, both of which took place in February.
"We were left no choice, after South African's snub at the United Nations in Geneva. Until then, South Africa for three yeas had merely raised new objections to the UN plan worked out by Five Western nations [US, Britain, Canada, West Germany, France] or asked for further clarifications.
"It had never slammed the door to an internationally acceptable solution to the problem. In Geneva, however, South Africa deliberately thumbed its nose at the UN. Privately, it was told that the UN would break its ties with SWAPO [ South-West African People's Organization] in exchange for a date for the cease-fire. It was offered constitutional guarantees for its interest and for the white minority in Namibia. Its answer was, "We are not interested,'" says one moderate African ambassador.
However, the African UN initiative comes in slow motion. Theoretically, it could have pushed forward in the form of a "blitz," with this week's resumed session of the General Assembly leading to an immediate call for a Security Council meeting. This leading in turn to a convening of an emergency special session of the General Assembly. But, according to African sources, there is no desire on the part of responsible African leaders to use bulldozer tactics against the United States. In fact, they want to allow the new administration time to get a grip on the Namibian problem and its ramifications.
"Sanctions against South Africa are not in themselves our objective. All we are asking and hoping for is that the Reagan administration pursue its efforts, along with the other four Western nations, to persuade South Africa to let go of Namibia. What many of us fear, however, is that the new administration may turn it's back on Africa in the name of the need to 'contain communism' and thus lend support to South Africa's defiance of the world community," says an African diplomat.
In the likely event that an emergency session of the United Nations approves sanctions against South Africa, the US and its friends would presumably argue that General Assembly resolutions are not binding. The africans would reply by saying that the "United for Peace" resolution was American conceived and that juridically the United States would be reneging on a rule it had helped establish. Each nation would go its own way, but African bitterness toward the US would be likely.