Will South Africa reciprocate?

Strong, constructive steps toward peace and racial justice in Namibia are called for in the wake of the South African incursion into Angola. The United States took calculated diplomatic risks in vetoing a UN condemnation of South Africa for its action. It must now show that a friendlier, more positive approach toward Pretoria will pay off in achieving the objective of full independence for Namibia -- the last colonial redoubt on the African continent.

South Africa, for its part, is under moral obligation to demonstrate that its escalation of the fighting in Angola is not designed to thwart a negotiated settlement in Namibia, as the former German colony of South-West Africa is called. Many Western and African leaders fear that Pretoria's present strategy is to drop the idea of a political solution in favor of a military one. The intent would be to neutralize the SWAPO guerrillas fighting for Namibia's independence from bases in Angola, prevent the Soviet-backed SWAPO from taking power in Namibia, and install a government there of its own liking.

The root issue raised by recent events is how to combat communist expansionism. It certainly does not cheer anyone in the West that there are 20, 000 Cubans and 1,000 Soviet and East German military advisers in Angola. Nor would it leave anything but concern if SWAPO installed a communist government is Namibia following free elections there. The Western powers, as well as South Africa, have a legitimate interest in resisting further Marxist penetration of Africa.

But there is serious question whether stepped up South African military action against SWAPO will lead to removal of the Cubans in Angola or bring closer a political solution of the Namibia problem. It is more likely to have the opposite effect. Angolans have no love for the Russians or the Cubans. But their leaders must now feel even more justified in relying on Cuban and Soviet aid, especially when South African forces have been striking not only at SWAPO bases but at Angolan military and economic targets. Contrary to reducing Angola's dependence on Moscow, South African military actions encourage it. No one thinks Angola will ask the Cubans to leave as long the threat from South Africa remains.

It is clear that the only way to deprive the Russians anywhere of opportunity for adventurism is to correct the conditions which they so readily exploit. In this instance the cause of turmoil is in part the continuing unlawful occupation of Namibia by south Africa. Until that difficult diplomatic problem is solved and stability is assured in the region, the Soviet Union will continue to have influence in Angola. It is therefore in the US interest and South Africa's own self-interest to move away from the military sphere to working out a political settlement for Namibia's independence which gives blacks and whites there the freedom to shape a new government.

Not without justification, the South African government objected to the UN General Assembly's designating SWAPO as the "sole representative" of the Namibian people. That does seem to prejudge the electorate's view, even though most observers believe that SWAPO would win more than 50 percent of the vote in a free and democratic election. However, this issue should not remain an insurmountable obstacle. The Reagan administration, taking account of Pretoria's concerns, is pressing for pre-election guarantees for the white minority. It might also be noted that a SWAPO election victory would not necessarily plant the Marxist flag on South Africa's doorstep as it fears. As the experience of Zimbabwe shows, African nationalists who turn to the Russians for aid while fighting for freedom are quite capable of shedding their Marxist support once they take power -- and distancing themselves from their former mentors.

The US administration has articulated a new policy toward southern Africa that stresses "evenhandedness" toward whites and blacks. America's Western allies and black African leaders nonetheless see in Washington's UN veto a definite tilt toward the side of the South African government. It will be up to President Reagan to prove that this is not the case -- by encouraging Pretoria to take the diplomatic rather than the military route to Namibian independence and by resisting any South African effort to turn the guerrilla struggle into an East-West confrontation.

Failure to end colonialism in Namibia, in short, it what assures the Russians their best opportunity is southern Africa.

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