Namibia -- the mineral-filled but modestly populated territory formerly known as South-West Africa -- could become another neutral nation like Austria or Finland.
That is the essence of the latest Western plan for the strategic southern African land.
In an effort to prevent the changeover in Washington from totally derailing the three-year effort to get agreement on Namibian independence, the non-American members of the Western mediating team (West Germany, France, Britain, Canada) are about to present this new proposal to the Reagan administration.
The idea is that an independent Namibia, if patterned after Austria or Finland, might at last be acceptable both to South Africa and to the international community. A constitution drawing from the principles of the United Nations Charter would guarantee the new nation's democracy. An international treaty would guarantee its neutrality, so that it could not play a hostile role toward South Africa nor toward Angola.
The hope is that the new plan might sidetrack growing African anger against the United States for apparently warming toward South Africa; more specifically, that it might persuade black African countries not to press for sanctions against South Africa at the UN Security Council meeting scheduled to convene Apri6 21. (A request for sanctions against South Africa would be met with a US veto and would seriously isolate the US in Africa.)
The negotiations grinding on for the past three years came to an abrupt halt at the Geneva Conference in January when South Africa refused to go ahead with the UN plan it had previously accepted under pressure from the five Western nations, including the US.
This plan, embodied in Security Council Resolution 435, calls for a cease-fire, then UN-supervised elections, followed by independence. South Africa had raised objections over the manner in which the UN was planning to carry out the plan. It feared the plan would favor the main guerrilla-cum-independence group, SWAPO (South-West African People's Organization), and help turn Namibia into a communist state.
The Reagan administration seemed at first determined to turn its back on the efforts made by previous administrations on Namibia and to make anticommunism the one outstanding guideline of its African policy. In an interview with newsman Walter Cronkite, President Reagan said, "Can we abandon a country which is strategically essential to the free world?"
As part of this trend, the administration is trying to get Congress to remove the Clark Amendment which prohibits the US from giving military assistance to guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, fighting the Soviet-backed regime in next-door Angola. The Angolan government has long supported SWAPO.
Even though a scheduled visit by Mr. Savimbi to Washington was postponed by the Reagan administration, a Washington emissary met with him in Morocco last month. Reportedly several American military experts have recently made clandestine visits to Savimbi's guerrilla bases to assess his military needs.
Meanwhile, the outraged black African reaction to the apparent turnabout in US-African policy, as well as private advice from Western allies, seems to have some effect. In the words of one Western official, the US administration moved "back from the brink," and revised its position.
The Nigerian government was told by US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. that the administration had decided to pick up the threads of the Carter administration's program of international negotiations to bring about the independence of Namibia. And Chester A. Crocker, designated as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, embarked on a trip to Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Angola, South Africa, Nigeria, and to London where he would meet the other members of the "contact group."
His mission, according to diplomatic sources, was to try to sell the administration's own new formula for the independence of Namibia. That calls for the convening of a constitutional conference, styled after the Lancaster House conference which eventually led to the independence of Zimbabwe. A constitution, providing guarantees for the white minority and for south African interests, would be drawn up even before Namibia becomes independent.
But this plan is unacceptable to SWAPO, to the so-called "frontline states" bordering South Africa, and indeed to all of black Africa. These critics see the US plan as bypassing the UN resolution and cutting the tie between Namibian independence and the United Nations.
Hence Mr. Crocker has been unable to rally black African leaders to this idea. He was snubbed both by Mozambique's President Samora Machel and by South Africa's Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha. According to diplomatic sources, the four Western partners of the US are equally unenthusiastic about the US plan.
Hence the non-American plan, to be submitted to Mr. Crocker in London on April 21, comprises two elements:
* A set of principles to be selected from the UN Charter and from various existing UN texts regarding human rights (political, economic, social) to be imposed on Namibia by the UN as its founding father.These principles would determine that Namibia would be governed democratically and could not become a totalitarian state.
* To reinforce these UN pre-imposed guidelines on Namibia's future constitution, Namibia's existence and neutral role could be spelled out and guaranteed by an international treaty to be signed by the frontline states, and other African and Western nations. Austria and Finland could serve as ex amples.