SOUTH Africa's killing fields are relentlessly bloody. Africans attack other Africans for political advantage in big urban centers and in distant villages, and this year's death toll mounts alarmingly. Even the country's once all-powerful white-led police appear unable to stanch the flow of blood. The violence is between followers of the African National Congress (ANC) and Zulu-speaking adherents of the Inkatha Freedom Party. Whether in big-city ghettoes like Soweto, or in more distant Transvaal industrial townships like Sebokeng, Zulus and ANC-believers have fought for primacy. In Natal, where Zulus are the majority, members of Inkatha and ANC rivals have killed each other for five years.
Each side accuses the other of fomenting and perpetuating the violence. In almost every case local feuds are involved and, like the Hatfields and McCoys, both sides have long memories. But at bottom, the brightening future for South Africa, the possibility of African rule in this decade, and maneuvering in anticipation of such changes are the underlying causes of malevolence on the killing fields.
Chief G. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief minister of the KwaZulu homeland and head of the Inkatha party, would deny that he and other leading Zulus originally encouraged attacks on the ANC in Pietermaritzuburg and other centers of Natal. He would claim that insofar as Zulus were involved, they were defending themselves from the ANC.
He is a committed Christian and deplores violence. Yet he insists that he and Inkatha deserve to be present at all bargaining tables, that his movement is as important as the ANC, and that Inkatha would "tear apart, piece by piece," any secret agreement reached between the ruling white National Party and the ANC.
After a long awaited and oft-postponed meeting in January between Chief Buthelezi and Nelson Mandela, deputy president of the ANC, the two leaders seemed reconciled. Mr. Mandela officially "recognized" Chief Buthelezi's importance and stature for the first time, and their personal and institutional concord immediately slowed the flow of African blood.
But the peace accord has not lasted. Between January and April, 200 Africans have been killed. Fifteen ANC student mourners were killed in Alexandra, a black slum in northern Johannesburg, and 13 ANC leaders were shot in Daveyton, both in late March. Fifteen more died in clashes in Soweto in mid-April.
Nowhere in Transvaal and Natal is black life sacred. Conflicts between the ANC and Inkatha are even spreading into once-white city centers. In late March Buthelezi said that "hopes that there will be peace between Inkatha and the ANC are becoming slimmer by the day." Mandela canceled a visit overseas in order to try to find a way to end the violence, but his exhortations and his criticism of the white-led police have had little effect.
Leaders of the ANC and many independent white observers believe that white police, possibly only at the local level, are encouraging Inkatha. Their evidence is circumstantial but powerful. Police have not been preventing Africans from carrying traditional so-called ceremonial weapons - spears and pangas (machetes).
The police, and a now disbanded special-projects group within the military, are accused of aiding Inkatha directly, of intervening selectively, of transporting Zulu militants, and of providing intelligence to Inkatha attackers.
The white government has long wanted a credible African negotiating ally and a strong African counterpart to the ANC. After seven years of internecine violence, everyone, even the ANC concedes that Inkatha cannot be ignored.
The ANC demanded the dismissal of the cabinet ministers for defense and police, and asked for army action to end the killing. President Frederik de Klerk has deplored violence too. But it may have escalated out of control.
Even Buthelezi may be powerless to call a halt. Indeed, if the turf wars ceased, his and Inkatha political prominence might fade.
Buthelezi wants to be received as a national leader despite his rural base. A presence, even a violence-achieved presence nationally, continues to serve him well. In that sense, the sooner whites and blacks negotiate around a bargaining table, the sooner armed conflict can - and it is a slim hope - be transformed into open electoral combat.