S. African blacks put Namibia first

Black activists in South Africa rate the pace of racial ''reform'' in this country somewhere between ''slow'' and ''nonexistent.''

Still, they put independence for Namibia (South-West Africa) at the top of their list of hoped-for changes in 1982 - well ahead of more ''bread and butter'' issues closer to home.

There is a certain sense of camaraderie between blacks here and in the territory to the north administered by the South African government. Blacks here say the struggle for independence in Namibia is similar to their own in that it is against the same government, according to prominent blacks interviewed by the Monitor.

But, more important, the gaining of self-rule in Namibia is seen as inevitably producing tangible improvements for blacks in South Africa.

In fact, some see resolution of the Namibian issue as a necessary stage-setter for fundamental change in South Africa. ''Namibia is a very high priority. I would say it is a pre-condition to our own liberation,'' says Bishop Desmond Tutu, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches.

''A Namibian settlement will improve greatly the chances of improvements here ,'' agrees Dr. Nthato Motlana, chairman of the Soweto Committee of Ten.

It is expected by many blacks in South Africa that once Namibia gains independence, international and internal pressure will build for change in South Africa. Namibia will no longer provide a ''distraction'' away from needed reforms in South Africa, says one prominent black.

Even if Namibia gains independence at the bargaining table, blacks in South Africa are likely to see it as the successful culmination of a long battle of black nationalism against colonialsm.

''It will be a very strong psychological boost,'' says a black university professor, perhaps articulating one of South Africa's great fears about a settlement in Namibia. That is that blacks in South Africa will take a Namibia settlement as evidence that an armed struggle even against vastly superior government military forces can succeed.

Indeed, even blacks opposed to the use of violence in South Africa reckon that a Namibian settlement might embolden guerrilla movements like the banned African National Congress.

Aside from any increase in guerrilla activity, a Namibian settlement encompassing a unitary state where everyone is entitled to vote could raise expectations among blacks for the same in South Africa.

Indeed, in early debate in the South African Parliament this year leader of the opposition Dr. F. Van Zyl Slabbert pointedly asked the government why concepts like full and equal franchise had been accepted as a premise for Namibian independence, but were unacceptable in South Africa.

The emphasis on Namibia implies a tacit support by blacks here for the current preoccupation of the West on a settlement. The Western ''contact group'' (United States, Britain, France, West Germany, and Canada) have given the initiative prominence. For the United States, Namibia is the most visible foreign policy initiative in black Africa.

South Africa also appears outwardly to have focused its attention on the Namibian issue, since the Western initiative began anew late last year.

Yet any support of the importance the West has placed on achieving a Namibian settlement does not carry any evident optimism among blacks that the initiative will succeed. Most remain skeptical that South Africa will not at some stage of the negotiations find the terms unacceptable and endlessly delay or even terminate the talks.

There is also some concern here among blacks about how the West will deal with South Africa should independence for Namibia be achieved.

President Reagan's ''constructive engagement'' approach to South Africa is perceived by many here as against the interests of the black population. And there appears to be a growing sentiment that US pressure on South Africa for internal reform may diminish rather than intensify once Namibia is successfully dealt with.

''The whole Reagan approach is seen very suspiciously and his popularity among blacks here is very low,'' says Joe Latakgomo, editor of the Sowetan, a black newspaper.

Some of the more liberal Afrikaners also wonder if a Namibian settlement will automatically help blacks in South Africa.

Historian Hermann Giliomee of the University of Stellenbosch suggests that a Namibia settlement might hurt the government so much politically by causing a conservative backlash that internal reforms would be ''impossible.'' He sees the government having the option of pursuing internal change, or independence for Namibia--but not both.

Some blacks accept this analysis. But it does not appear to have altered their views on the importance of Namibia.

''A settlement might slow down reform here. The prime minister might want to indicate he is not being stampeded,'' Bishop Tutu says. ''But in the long term it will only accelerate the rate of change,'' he adds.

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