Has the South African government at long last decided to bow to the United Nations and relinquish its control of South-West Africa -- the vast, mineral-rich land it has ruled in trust since 1919? So often has Pretoria gone back on its promises that any great optimism would be foolhardy. Nonetheless, hopes can again be cautiously raised with the news that South Africa has given conditional agreement to putting into effect a UN plan for independence of the territory by the end of 1981.
For the sake of Namibia, as the land is now called, and for the sake of peace and stability throughout the region it is to be earnestly hoped Prime Minister P. K. Botha follows through with the statesmanship required to bring this longstanding conflict to an end. He and his country can only benefit if he does.
Much rides on a "trust-building" conference to be held in Mozambique in January between the South African-backed political leaders of Namibia and the guerrilla leaders of SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization). If mutual suspicions and mistrust are dispelled, the plan can go forward. A cease-fire would take place in March and elections for an assembly in October. A UN peacekeeping force, meantime, would patrol a demilitarized zone along Namibia's border with Angola -- a plan to which Angola responsibly gave its assent some time ago.
South Africa's tentative cooperation with the latest able UN diplomatic effort presumably stems from seeing how few options are left open to it. In the end it must accept the UN-mandated solution if it wants good relations with the West and if it is to avoid the imposition of international sanctions. In this connection, too, it may reason that settling the Namibian issue may make it easier for the Reagan administration to pursue a softer line on apartheid. As for Namibia itself, it has become increasingly clear that the Pretoria-backed Democratic Turnhalle Alliance has little chance of defeating SWAPO in fair elections, inasmuch as the guerrilla organization has the support of the largest ethnic group in Namibia.
Selling a conciliatory Namibian policy to South Africa's conservative whites will obviiously be politically difficult for Prime Minister Botha. But the potential long-range benefits of a Namibian settlement for South Africa and indeed the entire African continent must be uppermost. Not least of all, once the war ends, Angola may be able to resolve its own civil conflict, with the prospect it can then ask the Cuban troops to leave.
There is, in short, now way to stop the clock in Namibia anymore than there was in Zimbabwe. Though many may be concerned about the possibility of a Marxist government in Namibia, the West cannot but support the right of the people there to work out their own destiny. This is the democratic point of view underpinning the UN position. So at this stage, with Nigeria, Tanzania, Angola and others pressuring SWAPO to sit down to direct talks for a peaceful end of the war, South Africa should be no less forceful in pressing the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance to make the talks a success.