THE CLOCK is stopped at midnight in Namibia. The agreed time has come for the onset of the South African colony's United Nations-sponsored passage to independence. But disagreements between South Africa and the SWAPO nationalist guerrilla organization have kept the passage from getting under way. South Africa fears that SWAPO is attempting to gain in the implemintation of the U.N. plan what it failed to get during the negotiation of the plan: a first opportunity to collect its guerrillas freely both inside and outside the territory in order to bring them to bear on the elections meant to lead up to independence. As a result, the whole laborious effort to set a model of reasonably peaceful transition to majority rule in the white-ruled southern Africa is in jeopardy.

We aren't going to pronounce on the merits of the issue. In a fundamental sense, there are no "merits": what counts is not some abstract determination, but rather what the political sensibilities of the two sides -- Pretoria and SWAPO -- will bear. Deeply distrustful, South Africa has been seeking out precisely that degree of openness that would ensure acceptance of neighboring Namibia's independence by the world community, without exposing its erstwhile ward to a "communist" takeover. SWAPO has been looking for a way to convert the general favor it has long enjoyed in the General Assembly by virtue of its challenge to South Africa, into the specific conditions that would help it to prevail in the orderly democratic contest for power on which the Security Council now insists. The role of the Security Council, which controls the real action, is being handled by five Western countries, led by the United States.

To say that the Carter administration is eager to win one in Africa is to say that Hank Aaron was eager to hit No. 715. That is part of what makes South Africa suspect that the administration, rather than stand on the principle of fair elections in Namibia, will cave in to satisfy the international gallery's evident desire to see SWAPO come to power by means fair or foul. For South Africa, the question posed by Namibia is nothing less than whether the five Western nations, especially the United States, will meet it halfway if it undertakes to resolve its racial dilemmas in good faith.

Still, we think Pretoria may underestimate the five nations' determination to install a democratic process, and their understanding of its apprehensions, and the respect it would win by doing everything it can to allow a fair U.N. plan to unfold. This puts an extraordinary burden on the Western countries who have negotiated that plan, but we think it is being shouldered and we believe South Africa will be able to respond. The crucial Namibia talks about to begin in New York will tell.