Botha's Namibian offer: another artifice

South Africa is teasing the West again over Namibia. Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's declared willingness to cede control over Namibia to France, West Germany, Britain, Canada, or the United States signifies no breakthrough in the long negotiations over the future of what was once called South-West Africa. His seeming concession is merely another artifice.

Mr. Botha made the offer last week in Bonn during a seven-nation European tour. He may have intended this unexpected gesture to disarm his critics or provide an item of conversation during the Western summit conclave in London. Certainly it was but the most recent of South Africa's many attempts to shift the blame for the lack of progress toward Namibian independence.

Since 1977 South Africa, the West, and the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), a guerrilla movement, have been attempting to negotiate an end to the low-level war between SWAPO and South Africa and a transfer of effective control in the sparsely settled territory from South Africa to the United Nations, and thence to a legislature chosen after a UN-supervised election. South Africa has managed over the years to stall one after another Western initiative.

For two years South Africa has refused to leave Namibia until the 25,000 Cuban soldiers, who support the Marxist government of neighboring Angola against a South African-backed insurgency group, depart. Last week Mr. Botha said he would hand over Namibia to any Western nation that wanted to defend and administer it, but only after the Cubans had gone home.

Although the US has exerted steady diplomatic pressure in pursuit of this objective, the Cubans cannot easily leave Angola until its government and its opponents find a means of accommodating each other. That will not happen soon, not least because of the proximity of the US presidential election.

Mr. Botha's offer was ingenuous, and was quickly rejected by Canada. Official Washington reacted cautiously, publicly without enthusiasm, and privately with levity. Who did Mr. Botha think he was kidding?

But in South Africa the press accounts were serious, and even his critics there may have regarded his offer as a serious rather than a calculated, frivolous gesture. Mr. Botha told correspondents in Bonn that he wanted to call the West's bluff, and thus to gain a psychological advantage for South Africa.

Nevertheless, Botha's initiative conveyed three serious messages:

First, South Africa is still searching for a way to circumvent the UN. Although the West, and all of Africa, are still committed to the procedures for Namibian independence that are spelled out in Security Council Resolution 435, South Africa prefers a regional initiative which it could dominate.

Second, Namibia, no longer a source of wealth, is costing South Africa dearly. The war there, infrastructural requirements in a time of war, and aid during years of serious drought are costing South Africa as much as $2 billion a year. South Africa's own annual governmental budget is about $20 billion. South Africa could use the $2 billion at home.

Third, South Africa is in no hurry to shed Namibia. So long as Namibia is a source of international concern, the attentions of the West and of the world will be focused there, and not on South Africa itself.

Transferring power in Namibia to indigenous parties will prove easy once South Africa genuinely either desires to get out or is pushed or pulled sufficiently tenaciously by the West, and not before.

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