FACTIONAL violence has been eroding hopes for a negotiated solution to South Africa's problems. The only ones cheered by pitched battles between supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) and partisans of Inkatha, the Zulu movement, are hard-line whites who want to see the policies of President Frederik de Klerk reversed and the crumbling apartheid system rebuilt. Violence threatens the fundamental change both warring sides want - an end to apartheid as quickly as possible. In that sense, the situation is ironic, but it's hardly surprising. Apartheid's approach to African ethnicity was to emphasize tribal allegiances through the establishment of separate, supposedly autonomous homelands. Broader based political alliances among blacks were suppressed.
With the legalization of the ANC and other anti-apartheid organizations, political competition for the backing of millions of black South Africans began in earnest. The Inkatha-ANC feud, long simmering in Natal province, grew bloodier. Nelson Mandela, just released from prison, decried the killing and proposed a meeting with Inkatha's Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. That meeting didn't happen, because Mr. Mandela's colleagues felt it would give Chief Buthelezi standing he didn't deserve.
In the months since, the violence has grown, spilling from Natal into the townships near Johannesburg. The fighting increasingly has taken on a tribal coloring, with Zulu men from workers' hostels battling Xhosa residents of the townships. But the fundamental conflict is political.
ANC activists see Inkatha as tainted by collaboration with the white government. They see the country's police force favoring the Zulus. Inkatha's leadership sees the ANC trying to deny it a role in shaping South Africa's future. Going on the attack has often been Inkatha's way of asserting it's a force to be dealt with.
But fighting only darkens the political prospects of the combatants. Many in both the ANC and Inkatha realize this and are trying to get a dialogue started, beginning with talks between local Zulu and ANC officials.
This can rekindle hope. And if the dialogue takes hold the outlook could brighten for that long delayed, and much needed, meeting between Buthelezi and Mandela. These leaders have to show not only black South Africans, but whites too, that their differences, while substantial, can be resolved peacefully.