The clock has been turned back several years on the independence of Namibia (South-West Africa) as a result of a radical policy shift toward South Africa by the Reagan administration.
The Unted Nations has been sidetracked, and the "contact group" (the United States, Canada, France, West Germany, and Britain) that drafted and mediated the UN independence plan may disband before long.
This is the consensus opinion here among "Namibia watchers" and senior diplomats who have been close to the three-year negotiating process.
They are reacting to the Reagan administration's latest strategy for southern Africa. This includes an effort to improve relations with South Africa while tacitly linking any withdrawal of South African forces from Namibia with demands for the removal of the Cuban and Soviet presence in Angola.
The Reagan strategy has little if any appeal to black Africans. Indeed, the mid-June meeting of the Organization of African States (OAU) is expected to call for an emergency summer session of the UN General Assembly to be convened under the "uniting for peace" procedure. This session would press for sanctions against South Africa and blast Western powers for "having failed to insure the implementation of their own plan."
The UN plan embodied in Resolution 435 of the Security council calls for a cease-fire, to be followed by UN-supervised free elections and finally by independence. Both South Africa and the main guerrilla group, the South-West Africa Peoples Organization (SWAPO) accepted the plan in principle last fall. But South Africa changed its mind in January at the Geneva conference, reportedly because they felt that the new Reagan administration would be more sympathetic to their point of view.
In fact, according to briefing papers said to have been drafted by high US officials in preparation for the recent visit by South African Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha to Washington and made public by Trans Africa, a lobbying group on African affairs, the US has undergone a major shift and is seeking a "constructive engagement" with Pretoria.
If these papers are genuine, and they have not been disowned by the Reagan administration, it appears the US is moving toward a de facto alliance with South Africa to check Soviet influence in the region.
In exchange for not treating South Africa like a pariah, the Reagan administration expects South African's cooperation toward achieving "an internationally acceptable solution in Namibia," according to the documents and to members of the Western nations' "contact group."
But, according to informed sources, while Mr. Botha eagerly accepted the goodwill gestures extended by the Reagan administration, he gave virtually nothing in exchange. Asked by the State Department what South Africa's bottom line on Namibia was, the South African government explained in a message sent to Washington after Botha's return to Pretoria that:
* The military component of the UN transition force previously agreed on by all sides, was unacceptable.
* That its own military should remain in Namibia during the elections.
This, in effect, would take the teeth out of the UN plan and place the elections under the control of South Africa's military forces. Meanwhile, the US has agreed not to "set any deadline for Namibia negotiations and not to pressure South Africa to accept solutions it belives contrary to its interests."
Furthermore US officials are tacitly linking the departure of South African troops from Namibia both to the returning home of Cuban troops stationed in Angola and to the Angolans opening the way for the pro-Western rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, to join the government. "This is like asking Mrs. Thatcher to include an IRA [Irish Republican Army] leader in her Cabinet," one African ambassador says.
The US feels that its new relationship with South Africa and modified UN plan described above will in the end be accepted by black and North Africans, including Nigeria, a major oil supplier of the US. African diplomats deny this vigorously. Many feel that the new US southern Africa policy with open opportunities to the Soviet Union rather than the opposite.
Meanwhile, the Namibia negotiations have become purely bilateral, involving only Washington and Pretoria. "The UN is pretty much out of the picture," one high official here says.