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US Africa mission: 'damage control'

It can't be called Kissinger-type shuttle diplomacy. Perhaps airborne damage control would be a better term. Currently, a high-ranking US State Department official is crisscrossing the African continent seeking to reassure black African nations that the United States is not about to cozy up to white-ruled South Africa.

At the same time, he is sounding out reaction to a new thrust in Western efforts to bring independence to Namibia --a disputed territory now controlled by South Africa.

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The diplomat, Chester Crocker, is designated to be the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs. (His nomination has still not been confirmed by the Senate, however.) Officially, his trip to Africa is said to be part of an American "policy review" to come up with a "fresh approach" to African issues.

[Mr. Crocker said in Salisbury, Zimbabwe, April 12 there was no question of a US tilt toward South Africa in its dealings with the African continent, according to Reuters.]

But southern African issues -- particularly the issue of Namibian independence -- will be the focus of his talks with leaders in a number of African nations. He arrives here in the South African capital city on April 14 for a two-day visit.

Most of his consultations will center on a new American initiative to steer Namibia (formerly South-West Africa) to self-government. South Africa has controlled the territory for the past 15 years in outright defiance of the United Nations. Although South Africa agreed to a UN plan for the territory's independence in 1978, there have been numerous delays and no date for independence is in sight.

That is particularly rankling to African states, which believe South Africa is deliberately stalling and frustrating the will of the 1 million Namibians, most of whom are black.

The UN plan, to which South Africa agreed, calls for the election of a constituent assembly, which would draft a constitution for the territory.

Since consenting to the plan, however, South Africa has had second thoughts -- apparently fearing that a Soviet-supported guerrilla movement called the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) would come to power in the territory. South African forces have been locked in a bush war with SWAPO for control of the territory for the past 14 years, and a SWAPO government in the Namibian capital of Windhoek would undoubtedly be hostile to Pretoria. $K rivately,$A South African officials have signaled they would like to chart out a constitution for Namibia before elections --apparently in hopes of building in safeguards for the 10 percent white minority and blocking establishment of a one-party socialist state.

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SWAPO has rejected that move, arguing it is a departure from the UN plan that would reward South Africans stalling tactics.

There is a precedent for such a negotiated solution -- the 1979 conference at Lancaster House in London, at which an independence constitution for Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) was hammered out, leading to an end for a long guerrilla war in that country.

Despite the success of that exercise, however, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe is now complaining that the Constitution under which he must govern is unduly restrictive, allowing the white minority inordinate control over the country's affairs.

SWAPO is apparently concerned that the South African government would seek to impose even greater constitutional restrictions on Namibia.

President Reagan, in one of his few public comments on the issue, said he favors drafting of a constitution before an election in Namibia. However, American officials know they will have a tough time selling that idea to African states. Consequently, they may be proposing something short of a full-fledged constitutional conference -- perhaps, for example, a conference at which a "statement of principles" to be embodied in a constitution might be drawn up.

It is unlikely, however, that Mr. Crocker will depart here with a firm agreement on even that course. South Africa is in the middle of a general election campaign, and the ruling National Party is resisting any moves that right-wing opponents could label a sellout of Namibia's whites.

Too, Mr. Crocker is not expected to seek any dramatic breakthroughs on this trip. He still faces Senate confirmation, and some critics in the US upper house question his conservative credentials. He probably will try to avoid controversy on his first visit to Africa as a policymaker.

Nevertheless, he will want to take back some signal that Pretoria is showing a degree of flexibility on the Namibian issue. Otherwise, the US will come under growing pressure from other African countries, especially Nigeria, its No. 2 oil supplier, to take a tougher stand against South Afr ica.

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