Has the long-running Namibian soap opera at last reached a decisive turning point? The United States State Department thinks so, and events in South Africa are potentially encouraging, but it would be rash to predict a positive outcome soon.
Although South Africa, which administers the territory, has in recent months accepted a set of negotiating principles prepared by the US and the other members of the ''contact group'' (Canada, Britain, France, and West Germany), it has agreed to generalities, not details.
The South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), which has been attempting since 1966 to oust South Africa from Namibia by force, has assented to the same overall framework. So have the African nations with the most influence over and interest in a Namibian settlement: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Nigeria, and, with less clarity, Angola.
Despite this promising conclusion to what the State Deplats-libartment haslats-lib called Phase I of the negotiations, it is the precise formulas of Phase II over which negotiations could once again collapse. Already, at the beginning of Phase II, SWAPO has publicly refused to accept an American-devised method of conducting the election which - if Phase II succeeds - will test the preferences of the Namibian people early in 1983.
At issue is more than an electoral mechanism; SWAPO thinks that the suggested technique could frustrate its long-promised victory. Similarly, South Africa has welcomed the plan because of the advantages that it might give to Namibia's Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), a Namibian multiracial, ethnic party backed by South Africa.
About 1,100,000 people live in Namibia. More than 600,000 are Ovambo, 100,000 are Kavango, and 100,000 are white (predominantly Afrikaans' and German-speaking). Eight other ethnic groups, some of whom number as few as 6,000 , complete the country's population profile.
The DTA, led by a white Afrkaner, includes among its leadership representatives of all of the ethnic groups. SWAPO draws much of its support from the Ovambo, but has a national base as well.
Namibia has never registered voters or delimited national constituencies. Until last year it was assumed that any election would be held by proportional representation, with a national list system similar to that used by Israel. In December, however, the West proposed that Namibia's forthcoming election be contested by a combined proportional representation and constituency system. Half of the seats would be allocated by each voting method. In effect, each voter would have two votes, as they do in West Germany.
Since South Africa's refusal to settle the Namibian question definitively has been based on its fear that SWAPO would win any election, and would then turn the country into a Marxist outpost, its government has viewed the new electoral proposals as a means of maximizing the DTA's vote-gathering potential. Constituencies could help an ethnically based party, particularly if the constituencies are delimited with care.
That disagreement is but one among the many potential obstacles to a successful conclusion of Phase II. South Africa will want to satisfy itself that the United Nations, which will supervise a cease-fire and monitor the electoral campaign and the conduct of the poll, will be impartial. There may be arguments about the size of the UN force, about the disposition of SWAPO's guerrillas (will they intimidate the voters?), and about the ability of South Africa to intervene in Namibia during the campaign, the voting, or afterward. Each issue can be broken down, if any side wishes to prolong or frustrate the negotiations, into innumerable sub-issues. The possibilities for delay are endless.
Since 1977, when the Carter administration persuaded South Africa to recognize Namibia as an international question, South Africa, the West, and SWAPO have come close on several occasions to an agreement. Always, however, South Africa managed to continue bargaining.
The State Department now believes South Africa is ready to settle, and will. Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's signal victory recently over the right wing in his party certainly supports that view. However, in Namibia, the decision in February of Peter Kalangula, the president of the DTA, an Ovambo, to abandon ethnic politics, certainly weakens the appeal of the DTA.
Mr. Botha may now want to use his newly strengthened position to conclude a decisive Namibian settlement. That is what the contact group wants and expects. But Mr. Botha may also choose to avoid further antagonizing his right wing. Mr. Kalangula's change of heart may also influence his thinking. If so, South Africa may temporize, and compel the West to wait yet again.