So far a Namibia settlement has eluded the so-called Western ''contact group'' of nations mediating directly with the southern Africa parties concerned. Yet if there is any sense of doom because the Namibia talks do not appear to be getting anywhere, the United States is paying no heed. Instead it is looking at a number of political straws in the wind which, taken together, seem to augur well for the achievement at long last of Namibian independence.
One hopeful sign is the continuing if not accelerated pace of diplomatic activity in the region - the South Africans meeting with the Angolans in the Cape Verde Islands, the Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos meeting with Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, and numerous other independent discussions taking place between African ''front line'' states and individual contact group members.
On the ground, too, there has been a conspicuous scaling down in military activity on the Angolan/Namibian front and in South African troop strength. While this may be only a seasonal phenomenon, other telling factors suggest that this could be a propitious moment for some kind of reciprocal troop withdrawal as a prelude to settlement.
This would make sense. A modest and gradual withdrawal of say 1,000 Cubans and 1,000 South African troops at a time would point in the right direction. Such a delicate operation would also require that none of the other parties - the Namibia guerrilla movement SWAPO or the Angolan guerrilla force UNITA - take unilateral advantage of the withdrawal. The moment any of the parties to the dispute failed to honor these requirements, the whole process would unravel.
The Americans caution that they see no single, neatly tied Namibian package in the works right now. But they do feel that, if a withdrawal scheme could be agreed upon and adhered to, then there is at least a 50-50 chance that a process could start within the next three months leading to a genuine framework for peace and independence in Namibia.
Much will depend on whether South Africa is in earnest this time or whether, as it has so often done in the past, it will dip into its bag of excuses to forestall a settlement that could bring a hostile black state on its northwestern border. Its recent brutal raid into neighboring Lesotho to eliminate members of the banned African National Congress does not enhance confidence in its willingness to negotiate.
Yet South Africa has solid reasons for seeking a settlement. Like Angola and Cuba, it is worried about the costs of war and the loss of life. It must also know that, with the US presidential election campaign heating up in a year's time, its prospects of gaining the maximum diplomatic advantage are probably at their optimum now.