President Reagan from the outset of his administration has sought to apply a softer hand on the government of South Africa. So far he appears to have received little in return. Not only has Pretoria refused to move forward on a new US plan for the independence of Namibia. Emboldened perhaps by the more conciliatory policy in Washington, it has in recent weeks stepped up the fighting against the SWAPO guerrillas. South African troops now are reported to have penetrated deep into Angola -- a move that increases tensions in the region and could seriously damage efforts to settle the Namibia dispute.
The United States ought to be joining other Wester powers in an unequivocal disapproval of the action. If it does not -- and the US reaction so far has been somewhat tepid -- it risks inviting a strong backlash from black African leaders who may perceive, rightly or wrongly, that Washington supports South Africa's enhanced militancy. In the eyes of black Africans, the latest South African military incursions are more than an "escalation of violence," as the State Department has characterized them. These, like other raids before them, are viewed as an invasion of a sovereign country by alien troops illegally occopying Namibia. Surely Mr. Reagan does not intend that his policy should be viewed as a green light for stepped up South African military activity. He should quickly make plan that the Angolan incursion prejudices a Namibian solution and therefore does not serve the long-term interests of peace and stability in the region.
The South Africans contend that their operations are routine and needed to counter a large buildup of forces by the South West Africa People's organization. That may be true. But the point is that the only way to stop the fighting across the Angolan border is to bring about an internationally acceptable political solution in Namibia. The SWAPO insurgents are fighting for the independence of their country and are not going to give up until that goal is achieved -- any more than did the guerrillas in the Rhodesian struggle. However high its losses. SWAPO has managed to keep replenishing its forces and appears likely to go on doing so.
The South African action is regrettable in another respect. Besides perhaps driving black African leaders to seek tough actions through the United Nations, the military raids complicate the US effort to get the Cuban troops out of Angola. Angola will not ask the Cubans to leave as long as there is fighting on its border with Namibia. And a settlement of the Namibia problem will not be reached without Angola's cooperation.In fact one of the more hopeful developments under the previous US administration was Angola's acceptance of the idea of a demilitarized zone along the frontier. The heightened fighting now would seem to rule out Angolan agreement to such a plan.
The question the world asks is whether the government of Prime Minister Pieter Botha is really prepared to give Namibia its independence as called for by the UN. For years South Africa stalled on the proposal for "free and fair elections" worked out by five Western powers. Then President Reagan and his aides launched a new initiative on Namibia and it looked for a while as if the plan, despite misgivings in the West, had a sympathetic ear in Pretoria. But that initiative, too, seems to be delayed -- as much, perhaps, by Mr. Reagan's preoccupation with domestic affairs as by South Africa's intransigence.
The latest developments suggest that the Reagan administration cannot long postpone coming to grips with continuing turmoil in southern Africa. The President deserves a chance to prove that a less strident US policy toward South Africa can produce results. But, judging from the events in Angola, he risks having his kindlier ways misread in Pretoria. The need is to make sure they are not.