South Africa nibbling at Namibia 'carrot'?

So far, it is working. That's the early assessment here of the Reagan administration's approach to gaining independence for Namibia (South-West Africa).

United States foreign policy has taken a noticeable ''tilt'' toward South Africa under President Reagan. His belief is that ''carrots'' rather than ''sticks'' will best induce South Africa to end its administrative control of Namibia.

On the heels of the recent tour of Africa by Western diplomats to launch the newest initiative for independence of the territory, analysts here see signs the Reagan approach is paying off.

''South Africa does not look to be stringing along the United States,'' says Michael Spicer of the South African Institute of International Affairs. Mr. Spicer, like many analysts here, was initially concerned that South Africa would simply ''string along'' the US - taking advantage of Washington's attitude without giving anything in return.

But South Africa is ''showing more political will toward a settlement than it has showed for some time,'' he says.

Although an independence vote in Namibia remains far from certain, analysts here are increasingly convinced that South Africa is seriously pursuing the possibility.

According to these analysts, the Reagan approach has:

* Convinced South Africa that, because of the relatively friendly administration in Washington, this may be the best time to settle the independence issue in a way that will be accepted internationally.

* Established a measure of trust between South Africa and the US that has put the initial phase of independence negotiations on a sounder footing than in the past.

* Strengthened the political will of South Africa to get on with a settlement , despite internal political dissent on the issue, by making clear closer ties with the US could result.

None of this is to say that South Africa is now ''committed'' to settling the Namibian issue. As Mr. Spicer puts it, a settlement is still highly ''conditional.'' He means South Africa appears willing to proceed with negotiations in the hopes of finding conditions that suit its own interests.

The Western ''contact group'' - the US, Canada, West Germany, France, and Britain - recently wound up a tour of Africa during which a set of principles for a constitution and a constituent assembly for Namibia were presented. The generally positive reception shown by black African states was seen as significant, given earlier suspicions about the US tilt toward South Africa.

On the military front, South Africa appears to be in a particularly strong position in terms of an election. The large-scale South African raid into Angola in August, has forced the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) into a more defensive posture, diplomatic sources say.

The downing Nov. 6 of an Angolan jet by the South African Air Force may signal Angola is going to begin challenging South Africa inside its borders. South Africa claimed the MIG-21 was shot down because it showed aggressive intentions. Angola says the incident took place some 124 miles inside its territory.

One strong signal analysts here see of South African seriousness toward Namibian independence is a growing political squabble with the internal political coalition, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance. The DTA is the most likely alternative to SWAPO rule in Namibia and has been backed by South Africa.

Some DTA leaders have threatened to resign unless South Africa does more to end discriminatory racial policies. The DTA says this is necessary for it to have a chance in a free election.

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