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Namibia: keep up the momentum

In one more safari for peace a hardy diplomatic band is traveling through Africa to win friends and influence people for a Namibian independence plan. All sides now want a settlement, according to the US State Department, whose Assistant Secretary Chester Crocker was given fresh assurances by South African officials in September. It is important that such mutual resolve not be undercut by newly reported vows from South Africa's far right wing to prevent accord.

Hope for avoiding endless repetition of Pretoria's own stonewalling tactics lies in recent impressions left by Prime Minister Botha. He reportedly indicated that the present plan for Namibia (South-West Africa) was the final option when he met with friendly political leaders in the land his government has long ruled in defiance of the United Nations. By joining in the revived momentum for progress he could challenge those who question how far he will go beyond lip service in the face of political risk at home. He could also belie the doubts of those who believe the Reagan administration's relatively soft line on South Africa encourages the status quo by providing no reason for Pretoria to think that it would gain by changing.

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On the latter point a US argument is that South Africa does have an incentive to pursue the present plan in the knowledge that it will never have a better one. To make the plan more acceptable the so-called contact group of five Western nations has added the concept of ''constitutional principles'' on which all parties would agree before the free elections mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 435. The suggested principles have not been publicly spelled out, but they are expected to address protection of minority rights, property rights, and other points of obvious interest to the white minority in Namibia and South Africa.

These principles are in the baggage of the current safari for peace - members of the contact group going from country to country in the region until the middle of next week. The group is also dealing with unresolved issues such as how to withdraw South African and guerrilla forces from Namibia and how to make up a fair and effective UN force to oversee elections when the South African regime finds most UN members hostile to it. Another objective is Pretoria's agreement on a date for electing a Namibian constituent assembly as a last step toward independence.

Will South Africa's obstructionists succeed once more as they promise? Mr. Botha will distinguish himself in the eyes of the world if he ensures that they do not.

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