On again. Off again. On again. Prospects for the independence of Namibia, which in recent months had vanished from the horizon, are appearing again in a somewhat clouded sky.
After having distanced itself from the UN plan for the independence of Namibia and from its partners in the "contact group" (Canada, France, Great Britain, and West Germany), the United States has moved back on track. Reliable diplomatic sources say it has convinced itself that:
* It will not succeed in simply cajoling South Africa into giving up Namibia.
* An internationally acceptable solution to the problem is in the strategic interest of South Africa and of the West.
Since the beginning of the year the Reagan administration has engaged in bilateral dialogue with South Africa, trying to convince it of its friendly intentions and to established a trusting partnership. This "all carrot and no stick" approach, however, failed to soften South Africa's stance on Namibia.
Last year, South Africa had accepted Security Council Resolution 435 as the basis of a settlement regarding Namibia, in principle. After Reagan's election, South Africa reneged on its commitment and at the Geneva conference on Namibia last January slammed the door on the UN.
"It felt that it now had a friend in the White House and that it would no longer be pushed around," one UN official says.
However, after many months of futile attempts at cajoling South Africa, a certain irritation began to be felt by high American officials who were dealing with the problem.
"They finally saw the light and came to the conclusion that pressing South Africa toward a solution through the contact group was still their best bet," says a Western diplomat.
High officials of the contact group will travel next week to southern Africa to visit the frontile states (Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana), and to South Africa and Namibia to present them with a new ans "final" package for Namibian independence. This "modified version" of the UN plan is centered on a number of ideas worked out by the French mission to the UN last May. They have subsequently been refined and enriched.
The plan has four elements aimed at meeting the objections and reservations expressed by South Africa concerning the status of the white minority in Namibia , its own security interests, and the UN's impartiality in supervising free elections in Namibia. It also takes into account the concerns of the African states. The plan calls for:
* A set of constitutional principles drawn from the UN charter, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, UN texts concerning social and economic rights, and the constitutions of Nigeria and Zimbabwe. These principles would be inserted in the future constitution of Namibia and guarantee the rights of minorities.
* A special international status for namibia to be proposed by the future Namibian authorities, guaranteeing its borders against foreign invasions and commiting it not to be used as a springboard for aggression against its neighbors. This status would be registered with the Security council and endorsed by the major powers and key African countries.
* The UN forces to be deployed in Namibian during the electoral process would be under the UN flag, but composed of soldiers drawn from countries known not to be unfriendly to South Africa and wearing their national uniforms.
* From the moment the UN plan would begin to be implemented, all past UN involvement with the problem would end, including previous support for SWAPO (the Southwest African People's Organization).
Besides the UN presence, civilian poll watchers drawn from Western countries and from the frontline states would monitor voting. A commission would be set up to arbitrate disagreements and litigations among the various parties.
The US, dissuaded by the contact group from linking withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola to the Namibian settlement, is reportedly pursuing these objectives separately.
The gradual phasing out of the Cuban presence in Angola is being discussed along with withdrawal of South African forces from Namibia. According to reliable sources, Angola has not been unreceptive to this scheme. but many loose ends remain to be worked out to satisfy South Africa and Angola.
There is no guarantee that the package will be accepted by South Africa, and many Western diplomats are skeptical.
Some knowledgeable observers feel that the South African government is now convinced that the Reagan administration means business with regard to Namibia and that it must take advantage of the friendliest American administration it is likely to get for setting the question of Namibia in the most advantageous way that it can hope for.
Others, however, feel strongly that South Africa is not about to let go of Namibia and will simply try to take the Reagan administration for a ride.
The three influential right-wing parties in South Africa remain totally and bitterly opposed to any concessions on Namibia and the DTA (Democratic Turnhalle Alliance) rejects more than ever the UN plan and any solution that would gies SWAPO a share of the pie. At best, Prime Minister P. W. Botha will engage the "contact group" again in protracted negotiations, according to diplomats.