Yesterday's surprise talks between South Africa and SWAPO rebels may hold the key to whether the South African government honors its commitment to withdraw its troops from southern Angola.
Political analysts and diplomatic sources here say South Africa wants an end to SWAPO border incursions into Namibia before it disengages from Angola. SWAPO (the South West Africa People's Organization) is the black nationalist organization fighting for control of Namibia from bases in Angola.
What is unclear is what concessions - if any - South Africa might be willing to offer SWAPO in exchange for a cessation of border hostilities.
South Africa would like to draw SWAPO into a peaceful political role inside Namibia and might be willing to allow the guerrilla group to take part in some form of pre-independence government, some analysts say. But SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma said in June that the rebel group would not agree to take part in a ''government of national unity or an interim government.''
Publicly, Nujoma continues to insist he is interested only in a formal cease-fire that would lead to implementation of the United Nations plan for Namibian independence. Under that plan there would be free elections in Namibia. Most observers predict SWAPO would win such a vote. But the UN plan has been bogged down by the insistence of both the US and South Africa that it must be accompanied by a withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. There are an estimated 25,000 Cuban soldiers stationed in Angola.
The conventional diplomatic wisdom here is that South Africa's leaders are in a strong bargaining position, having effectively increased pressure on SWAPO to lay down its arms. Inside Namibia SWAPO faces South Africa's overwhelming military superiority. Now SWAPO is apparently coming under pressure from the Angolans to stay clear of the border area so South African forces will finally leave that country.
The talks took place in Cape Verde, a cluster of islands off the west coast of Africa where South Africa and Angola have held talks in the past. The location of the talks suggests to some observers that Angola may have applied pressure on SWAPO to meet with South Africa.
South Africa was represented by its administrator-general of Namibia, Dr. Willie Van Niekerk.
South Africa and Angola signed a disengagement agreement in February calling for Pretoria to withdraw its forces from southern Angola, provided the vacated territory is not reoccupied by SWAPO or Cuban forces stationed in Angola.
Angola has complained that South African forces should have been withdrawn months ago, but they remain some 25 miles inside the country. Pretoria said the final phase of the withdrawal was delayed because of a step-up of SWAPO activity in the border area.
South Africa has also sought some kind of longer-term agreement with Angola that would establish a demilitarized border zone once the disengagement is complete. South Africa and Angola have been meeting in recent weeks to try to hammer out such a security arrangement.
The US, which has monitored the disengagement process, recently voiced optimism that the withdrawal of South African forces would soon be completed but noted that cooperation from SWAPO was essential.