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Namibia: dance of the slow snail

The simmering conflict in Namibia has virtually no chance of being resolved before mid-1981. Despite the anxiety of the United Nations to resolve the issues hindering an internationally approved settlement of the Namibian issue, and despite important Western big-power brokering, South Africa's steadfast response has combined the hesitancy of a snail with the insouciance of a Cheshire cat.

Namibia, a lapsed League of Nations mandate controlled by South Africa in defiance of the United Nations, is a mineral-rich country of about 500,000 square miles. It contains nearly a million people, only 100,000 of whom are white. The whites predominantly hold South African citizenship, although more than 20,000 speak German and about 12,000 hold West German passports.

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In this crucial American election year, the South Africans are stalling. With the Middle East in turmoil and the Iranian and Afghan questions preoccupying the West, South Africa's leaders know that they can avoid undue pressure from the United States and the UN at least until January.

In mid-September, UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim offered to send senior officials to South Africa to bring the Namibian dispute to an end. The South AFricans, who have recently reshuffled their Cabinet and hold a bried session of their new Parliament on Oct. 6, replied merely that they could receive the UN after Oct. 20, comfortably close to the date of the American election.

The dance of the slow snail has been prolonged, tortuously, throughout 1980 despite virtual agreement between the UN and South Africa on a host of once intractable issues. Before 1977 South Africa refused even to acknowledge the fact that Namibia (then South-West Africa) was a responsibility of the UN. In 1978, under intense pressure from the US and the four other Western nations that compose the so- called Contact Group (Canada, Britain, France, and West Germany) , South Africa agreed in principle to internationally supervised elections and a transfer of power to be policed by 7,500 UN troops. A few months later, the Contact Group, with significant assistance from Nigeria and Tanzania, persuaded the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), the Soviet-supported guerrilla movement which had been battling South Africa in Namibia since 1966, to accept the same terms.

Since that optimistic interlude, however, both the South Africans and SWAPO have found innumerable reasons and rationalizations to avoid a truly final settlement. Last year Angola proposed, and all sides eventually this year accepted, the creation of a demilitarized zone straddling the northern Namibian-Angolan border. South Africa bargained for and obtained bases and monitoring facilities in the zone. South Africa also elicited a promise from Secretary-General Waldheim that UN observers would comport themselves in Namibia , and especially in the period leading up to and during the supervision of elections, in a manner which would be "completely impartial."

That was a major concession, but in an American election year, South Africa still stalled. It questioned the ability of the UN to guarantee impartiality. Mr. Waldheim has now offered to give further assurances. South Africa may, in time, accept them. But South Africa sees no incentive rush.

In fact, as South Africa has been toying with the UN, so has it been giving more and more authority and autonomy to a white-led multiracial political assembly in Namibia. Many African states suspect that South Africa intends ultimately to snub the UN and transfer power in Namibia to this anti- SWAPO internal group. But given the illegitimacy and the final collapse of Bishop Abel Muzorewa's puppet government in neighboring Zimbabwe, South Africa is unlikely to attempt so risky an option. Rather, the simpler explanation is that the South Africans are attempting to give the Namibian internal group as much credibility as possible in preparation for the day, sometime next year, when South Africa will both want and need to stop stalling.

Only at this point, when it is certain that the new government of West Germany and the US will give no comfort to South Africa, when it is evident that UN sanctions on South Africa at last pose a real threat, when Zimbabwe has shown how successfully it can arrange its own affairs without threatening South Africa , and when South Africa is itself poised for a major rearrangement of its internal politics, then the snail will smile benignly, further last-minute bargaining will occur, and elections will be held leading toward Namibia's internationally approved independence.

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