Is Secretary of State Shultz putting the issue of Namibian independence back on America's diplomatic stove? The question has been so far off the front burner as to prompt a view inside the State Department that it was not even on the back burner. Indeed, Africa as a whole was conspicuously absent from the wide-ranging agenda for the department's recent and often excellent foreign policy seminar for members of the press.
But last month Secretary Shultz quietly met with an official of Angola, whose Cuban troops have been injected into the Namibian diplomatic equation over United Nations protests. Today he is expected to meet with Sam Nujoma, leader of SWAPO (South West Africa People's Organization), which operates both from bases in Angola and from within Namibia (South West Africa). The Shultz schedule also includes talks with representatives of the so-called front-line black African states. These see the urgency of progress in negotiations that have been going on for years between a ''contact group'' of five Western countries and South Africa, which controls Namibia in defiance of the UN.
Possibilities for agreement have repeatedly been glimpsed on such points as voting procedures for an independent Namibia, protection of minority (white) rights, and the make-up of security forces during the transition process. But recently all these matters have been overshadowed by what critics call mistaken ''linkage'' of the Namibia settlement to removal of Cuban troops from Angola - and what the State Department calls ''parallel progress'' in resolving both matters.
In the current UN Security Council debate on Namibia, Cuban and Angolan delegates have gone so far as to say the presence of Cuban troops would be reviewed once Namibia was free and South African forces were no longer threatening Angola from Namibia. The US has gone so far as to consider some kind of phased method, with so many Cubans withdrawing at a time along with so many South Africans. Some voices have suggested that, to help meet Angola's internal security needs, the Cubans could gradually be replaced by Portuguese, who still have roots in Angola, a former Portuguese colony.
Apart from a mutual reduction of threat, a bargain that resulted in the elimination of Cuban troops could invite South African cooperation on Namibian independence. After early signs of such cooperation, the South African government has kept coming up with obstacles to it. One evident reason is internal politics, with a right-wing element poised to denounce any leader for ''losing Namibia.'' Such a leader would presumably be strengthened if he could say, ''But, look, I got the Cubans off our doorstep.''
At all events, it is not really a matter of anybody ''losing'' Namibia, when the goal is to carry out international law. Indeed, continued delay in this process plays into the hands of those - notably the communists - who are only too ready to exploit liberation movements for their own ends, with losses for all.
Thus it is encouraging to see Secretary Shultz taking a visible role. Aides reportedly say he wants to play a more active part in order to arrange a breakthrough in negotiations. If he proceeds to do so, the administration's ''constructive engagement'' with South Africa would look constructive indeed.