THE independence of Namibia, after more than a century of colonial rule, will hasten the momentum toward peace in southern Africa and could spark a process of democratization in Africa's one-party states. Africa's youngest nation - which became the 160th member of the United Nations at midnight March 20 - will enter independence with one of the continent's most democratic constitutions, a sound economy, and unprecedented international goodwill.
Namibia's attainment of independence also represents a breakthrough for United States-Soviet cooperation in negotiating solutions to regional conflicts.
The occasion was recognized in the first visit to southern Africa by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and the presence of US Secretary of State James Baker III.
Namibia's gradual transition to independence - which has seen interracial consensus on a multiparty democracy - will also bolster the process of liberalization in South Africa, where white reluctance has been fueled by a legacy of post-independence failures in Africa.
``In a symbolic way, it will have a positive effect on the process of dialogue and negotiations in South Africa,'' says Heribert Weiland, director of research at the Arnold-Bergstraesser Institute in West Germany.
If South Africa's 5 million whites see that it works for Namibia's tiny white population of about 75,000, Mr. Weiland says, they will be more inclined to take the risks involved in relinquishing political power.
``That is why - from the viewpoint of the international community - it had to work.''
At the midnight celebrations at the sports stadium here, Namibia's new president, Sam Nujoma, was flanked by United Nations' Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cu'ellar and South African President Frederik de Klerk.
Mr. De Klerk exchanged warm handshakes and smiles with Mr. Nujoma at several points during the ceremony. And the long-time leader of the country's main liberation group, the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), acknowledged the South African president's role in the independence process as ``an act of statesmanship.''
``This is the first demonstration of political will by South Africa to find a negotiated settlement to the problems of our region,'' Nujoma said.
De Klerk, seizing the historic opportunity accorded him, sought to win the acceptance of African leaders who have declined to meet him.
``I stand here tonight as an advocate of peace,'' he told the crowd. ``The season of violence has passed for Namibia and for the whole of southern Africa.''
De Klerk said Namibia's independence was ``the culmination of protracted negotiations in which we Africans found a solution to an African problem.''
A free Namibia is likely to lead rapidly to South Africa's full acceptance in Africa after more than four decades of isolation.
Zambia's President Kenneth Kaunda has said that he would include De Klerk in a summit of black-ruled southern African leaders once Pretoria fulfilled its international commitments to Namibia.
More recently, Mozambique's President Joaquim Chissano told President Bush - during a visit to Washington in early March - that he would seek to have direct talks with anti-government Renamo rebels in his country as soon as Namibia was independent.
Alone among South Africa's black-ruled neighbors resisting contact with Pretoria is Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who failed to attend the independence celebrations. His absence, while apparently directed at De Klerk, was seen as a snub by his Namibian hosts.
When freed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela entered the dignitaries' stand behind the presidential podium, the crowd erupted in applause and cheering. Mr. Mandela waved his arm in a clenched fist salute.
Earlier in the evening neither Mr. Mandela nor Nujoma showed up at a banquet in Windhoek hosted by South Africa's outgoing Administrator-General, Louis Pienaar.
But the gestures of disapproval could not conceal the obvious breakthrough for De Klerk. He held his first meetings with Soviet Minister Shevardnadze, and Angolan President Jos'e Eduardo dos Santos and is due to receive Mr. Baker in Cape Town March 22.
Namibia's independence has been the central element in an interlocking peace accord which seeks to end the conflict in Angola in which US and South African-backed UNITA rebels have been pitted against Soviet-backed Angolan forces and a large Cuban mercenary force.
Following a 45-minute meeting with Baker March 21, Mandela reiterated his oppostion to the Baker-De Klerk meeting, saying it would send the wrong signals to Pretoria.
The historic transfer of power was symbolized by the lowering of the South African flag and the raising of the striking green, red, and blue flag of the new Namibia.
The successful transition to independence In Namibia represents a major triumph for the UN's role in monitoring the South African administration during the transition period and in supervising the pre-independence ballot.
Analysts believe that the UN's high profile involvement, the promise of about $100 million in international aid, and the spin-offs from cordial relations with South Africa will ensure that Namibia's first black government follows realistic, free-enterprise policies, despite its socialist rhetoric of the past.