Namibia: A New Era Dawns. AFRICA'S LAST COLONY

ELSIE MASEKE, for one, is sure of the benefits independence will bring. ``We'll all get enough to eat and enough to wear,'' says the 17-year-old student, counting off the list on her fingers. ``We'll get all the things white people have.'' She thinks for a moment, then adds, ``And my biology class will get a microscope.''

While their expectations may not coincide exactly with Ms. Maseke's, many here have high hopes for this Texas-sized territory. For after almost 70 years of often heavy-handed South African rule and a bloody guerrilla conflict, Africa's last colonial struggle is about to end.

Today, a United Nations special representative is scheduled to arrive to oversee the implementation of UN Resolution 435. That plan - which takes effect tomorrow - calls for a UN-supervised transition over the next seven months leading to elections for a constituent assembly. The assembly will draw up a constitution - and Namibia finally will be free.

But a lot could come between Maseke and her dream of a microscope. For starters, there's the stiff-necked South African military, many of whose top officers are dead-set against Namibian independence. Those sentiments are shared by local security forces, who for years have been trained to exterminate guerrillas of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) - the group most likely to win elections.

Then there's the white community, which largely rejects Resolution 435 and has vowed to fight black majority rule. And an inherently weak economy that's almost totally dependent on South Africa. Add to that the obvious problems SWAPO will have in converting from revolutionary rebels to party politicians - and analysts say you have all the ingredients for potential disaster.

It's as though ``South Africa has built a house on pillars in which it planted explosive devices that could be detonated at any time,'' says Dr. Kenneth Abrahams, a former SWAPO member who now belongs to another opposition group.``If just one of those pillars blows, the whole structure could come tumbling down.'' And, he adds,``we could degenerate into another Lebanon or Northern Ireland.''

To be sure, others believe that with the eyes of the world - and the UN - peeled on this place, there's a fair chance independence will go smoothly.

It's something the 1.5 million inhabitants of this desolately beautiful land come to almost by default. South Africa agreed to give up Namibia - which it has ruled in defiance of UN resolutions - as part of a Dec. 22 peace accord aimed at ending neighboring Angola's 13-year-old civil war. In exchange for Cuba gradually pulling its estimated 50,000 troops out of Angola, South Africa withdrew its soldiers - and accepted 435.

BUT ranking armed forces officers say there's widespread resentment at being forced to accept the link between Namibian independence and solving the Angolan muddle. Indeed, they see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - which essentially engineered the United States-sponsored deal - as having sold out to communists. (That's the way they characterize SWAPO.) Moreover, they worry about setting an example for black nationalists fighting the segregationist apartheid system back home.

While no one suggests that Pretoria's military men might try to torpedo 435, some clearly are trying to influence its outcome. For instance, the managing director of a major company here says a South African colonel - in full dress uniform - dropped in unannounced a couple of weeks ago to give the firm's senior staff a two-hour lecture on the evils of SWAPO and urge them to vote for the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance.

(The DTA, as it's known, is a multiracial crazy-quilt of parties that's closely identified with Pretoria. It's also thought to be SWAPO's strongest competitor.)

South African battalions also reportedly have been passing out DTA literature in the north - and tearing up anything displaying the blue, red, and green SWAPO colors. Harassment by security forces has gotten so bad, in fact, that an urgent court application was filed recently to get them to stop interfering with SWAPO supporters.

Even a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official concedes that ``there are military people who don't want to see this thing happen. It has been, and will be, a major problem. But we think they can be isolated.''

The official says the incidents ought to diminish once 435 takes effect and South African troops are confined to barracks. But others worry that Koevoet - the 3,000-man counterinsurgency squad that's notorious for its ruthlessness - could take up where the regular soldiers leave off. David Smuts, a human rights lawyer, maintains that instead of being disbanded, Koevoet members have been absorbed into the police force.

``A change of uniform doesn't mean a change of heart,'' he says. ``These guys are trained SWAPO killers. How can they be even-handed?'' (The foreign affairs official insists only those with law-enforcement experience have been reassigned as policemen.)

The anti-SWAPO/435 sentiment finds strong echoes in Namibia's white community - a community that's numerically weak (about 12 percent of the population) but economically strong. Harold Pupkowitz, a businessman and Chamber of Commerce member, claims that ``80 percent to 90 percent of whites didn't want 435 foisted on us. We don't need the UN to tell us what to do.''

THUS, it's a time of great uncertainty for whites in this capital city that, reflecting its roots as a former German colony, looks like a bit of Bavaria carved out of the desert. Many still believe that somehow, some way, the South African military will ``save'' them. Others, however, aren't so sure; they're apparently taking matters into their own hands. Salesmen at the two gun shops downtown report a sharp jump in purchases of shotguns and pistols. A Windhoek lawyer says his family and neighbors in a northern farming community are arming themselves ``against the UN and blacks.''

And Dr. Hans-Klaus Engelhardt, head of a shadowy ethnic German organization, is seeking funds from the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation and from Arab governments. He maintains that if SWAPO comes to power, a group of black rebels from outside the country will take up arms against the government.

``If we whites were to fight,'' Dr. Engelhardt says, ``the whole world would cry because whites are fighting blacks. If it's blacks fighting blacks, no one will care.''

Some here find the threat of white vigilantism tame, however, compared with the realities of Namibia's economic dependence on South Africa. To be sure, Namibia has all the makings of a success story: tremendous deposits of diamonds, copper, uranium; good roads, telephones, and the like; a small population.

BUT some 80 percent to 90 percent of Namibia's trade passes through South Africa. All of its rail lines are linked to its southern neighbor. South Africa is retaining the country's one port at Walvis Bay. Namibia's electrical system is integrated into South Africa's grid. As lawyer Hartmut Ruppel puts it, ``Pretoria knows where every light switch is in this country.''

Thus, it wouldn't take much to bring Namibia to a standstill. ``South Africa is going to be on the lookout,'' warns Fanuel Tjingaete, a University of Namibia economist. ``If SWAPO comes to power, it will have to play the game very carefully.''

So far, it's tough to tell exactly what policies SWAPO would implement. For most of its almost 30 years in exile, the organization's external wing pushed a strong Marxist line. (It also maintains an internal wing.)

Recently, however, it has proposed creating a multiparty democracy with free-market policies - something skeptics say is almost too good to be true. ``At the moment we talked about Marxism, we were a liberation movement,'' explains Crispin Matongo, of SWAPO's Central Committee. ``Now we're a political party and we're saying that it will remain a mixed economy. Whites must feel free to stay and run their businesses.''

None of this, however, seems to faze the people of Katatura, Windhoek's teeming black township. They're just excited about finally being independent. Take a recent trade union meeting, where the hall is a blaze of SWAPO colors. Participants are decked out in blue, red, and green scarves, sweaters, vests, caps, blankets. (One man has the colors in Christmas tinsel wound around his cowboy hat.)

From somewhere in the crowd, a man starts to sing, ``Sam, [Nujoma, SWAPO chief] where are you?'' The song slowly is picked up around the room as people rise, fists clenched, swaying slightly to the music. Off to one side, a young woman with closely cropped hair hangs back, studying the scene intently.

``Maybe this won't be heaven on earth,'' she announces, barely audible above the ululating voices. ``But at least we have a future.

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