THE transition to independence of this sparsely-populated territory could become one of the United Nations' most significant achievements. With less than six weeks to the Namibian independence election, the UN-supervised transition is on course, and full independence is expected April 1.
``When the history of international operations is written,'' says UN Special Representative Martti Ahtisaari, ``I believe that this will be seen to be one of the great logistical success stories.''
The Finnish diplomat's role, as civilian head of the United Nations Transitional Assistance Group, is to monitor the Pretoria-run administration and supervise the elections during the week of Nov. 6. He can halt the vote if he finds it is not ``free and fair.''
It is the first time the UN has conducted such an operation in support of a civilian government. The job has involved close consultation between Mr. Ahtisaari and Louis Pienaar, Pretoria's administrator-general in Namibia (South-West Africa).
After 74 years of South African rule, the decolonization process in Namibia has given Ahtisaari first-hand experience of the problems that will face a post-apartheid South Africa.
Despite its tiny population of 1.2 million, Namibia's significance lies in its proximity to South Africa and its pivotal role in a regional peace initiative backed by the United States and the Soviet Union.
``Namibia may, in an indirect but cogent way, bear closely on the future of South Africa itself, and on the manner in which that future comes to be decided,'' said Ahtisaari.
But numerous practical problems have threatened to torpedo the Namibian peace process. Among them have been political assassinations, controversy over the notorious South African Koevoet (``crowbar'') counterinsurgency unit, and mounting outrage about the torture and disappearance of political detainees held by guerrillas of the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO).
Even the first day under the UN plan, six months ago, was almost its last. South African security forces left their bases in the north of the territory to counter an infiltration of SWAPO guerrillas from Angola and fought the heaviest battle of the 23-year-old bush war, resulting in 340 deaths.
``It was not the easiest thing to get the exercise back on track,'' said Ahtisaari. ``But the fact that we succeeded showed that implementation of the UN plan is on a firmer footing than ever before. And it said something about the South African government's own commitment.''
Ahtisaari believes the presence of some 7,000 UN military, police, and civilian personnel from 109 nations has had a healthy effect in breaking the apartheid mold which has persisted despite the dismantling of most segregation laws.
The mineral-rich territory has for the past decade or so served as Pretoria's constitutional testing ground. Since 1977, the country has been ruled by a series of Pretoria-backed multiracial internal administrations.
One of Ahtisaari's tasks was to repeal some 40 restrictive and discriminatory laws that could have obstructed the elections. But it will be left to the first independent government to scrap a controversial decree retaining segregated schools and hospitals.