Can an upright, determined American administration persuade a coy, worried, and wily South Africa to come to terms over the fate of Namibia? The four-year-old negotiations over the future of that arid, diamondiferous land on Africa's southwestern coast do have a distinct soap opera quality.
In the past, constancy and inconstancy have been declared, promises made and not kept, suitors jilted, and well-meaning Western marriage brokers, spurned. Now, like a handsome newcomer, President Reagan's administration believes, nay intends, to apply common sense and what it calls constructive engagement to the international resolution of the Namibian problem. In May the administration discusses its plan in Washington, first with the South African foreign minister, who checked with his cabinet and signified his general approval, and second with the "contact group" (West Germany, Britain, France, and Canada).
The details of the new American plan have not been made public. The fact that they have not surfaced in South Africa is a sign that South Africa may be intrigued by the American proposal. That the South Africans are intrigued in turn worries the South West Africa's People's Organization (SWAPO), the Ovambo-dominated guerrilla movement battling South Africa from bases in Angola.
Given these considerations, but particularly given the failure of the Carter administration to bring the drama to a favorable conclusion, the new administration intends to exert a new, distinct American leadership, still in concert with the contact group but without much attention to the hitherto established negotiating primacy of the United Nations.
Security Council Resolution 435 has governed the negotiating strategy of the Un and the West. If called for national elections in Namibia under UN supervision, followed by the formation of a constituent assembly and the writing , by that assembly, of a new constitution.
Understandably, such a procedure would be less advantageous to South Africa and the 100,000 whites and 400,000 non-Ovambo who live in Namibia than its reverse. A year ago, immediately after Zimbabwe became independent with a previously agreed upon constitution that preserved white land, jobs, and voting rights for a period of years, and limited nationalization of property, South Africans began calling for a similar arrangement for Namibia.
The Reagan administration agrees that the preservation of minority rights is a good thing, particularly if a method guaranteeing those rights can be devised which induces South Africa peacefully to let go of Namibia after 65 years. At a minimum, the US plan is that Resolution 435 should be sidestepped and a constitution drawn up before any election or agreement on an election.In the first instance, the constitution may be produced on the drawing board of the contact group and South Africa. At this stage, there seems little likelihood of a grand, international conference similar to that which was a prelude to Zimbabwe's 1980 election.
Secretary of State Haig also hopes to ensure regular elections rather than the once and for all plebiscite which has been common in Africa and which, the South Africans fear, will put too much power in the hands of SWAPO.
If a constitution can be devised with these features and if SWAPO can be persuaded to accept it, then an election can be held which will move Namibia toward the internationally valid independence that Secretary Haig and the UN, and most Namibians, want.
Elections would follow, but under non-UN international supervision. This new notion would blunt South African fears of UN partiality to SWAPO. (The South African-backed Democratic Turnhalle Alliance is white-led and the main potential electoral competitor of SWAPO). A campaign and election supervisory force would then be drawn from countries with which south Africa has favorable relations.
Arguably, the Reagan administration has an approach to Namibia and a plan whose time has come. Sanctions will not move South Africa, and the new US government, unlike that of President Carter, has no stomach for sanctions. Give SWAPO's lack of battlefield success, and the desire of Africa's most concerned states to focus upon their own individual problems of economic growth, Africans may be prepared to settle for far less than under the old plan.
But a large central issue remains: is South Africa really ready to give Namibia its independence? Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha said last month that he was prepared to transfer power to SWAPO providing that SWAPO's victory came about by constitutional means. Do his words connote a new realization that ending the soap opera may be to South Africa's benefit? Is he at last persuaded that SWAPO could behave in victory like Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's party in Zimbabwe? Or are the South Africans again stalling, and will the Reagan administration let itself be drawn dangerously into an interminable exercise in futility?
Only if these questions can be answered securely and without embarrassing concessions (especially in the nuclear or military fields) should the US more forward. Unless we perceive firm assurances from South Africa, to so gamble may lose us African support and confidence as well as the chance to give the Namibian drama a praiseworthy ending.