SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA — A RESURGENCE of Zulu nationalism around the issue of whether Zulus should be permitted to carry spears at public meetings has emerged as the central obstacle to efforts to end political violence that has claimed nearly 1,000 lives since January. Human rights lawyers and anti-apartheid groups worry that South African President Frederik de Klerk is not prepared to confront Inkatha Freedom Party leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi in what is clearly becoming a test of wills.
``The problem is that De Klerk sees Buthelezi as a political ally,'' says a Western diplomat. ``So he does not want to do anything that will alienate him.''
Johan Heyns, assessor of the Dutch Reformed Church, which includes most members of government, says it is futile to continue peace efforts unless the three major groups - the government, the African National Congress (ANC), and Inkatha - are involved.
Mr. Heyns, who attended a government peace conference in Pretoria last weekend, says he is hopeful Chief Buthelezi will cooperate in any future peace initiative, but concedes the widely held perception that the Inkatha leader played an obstructive role at the meeting.
``The impression all of us got [at the conference] was that they - Buthelezi and the Zulu king - were there to show their strength and to remind us of the existence of the Zulu nation,'' Heyns says.
In recent weeks, Buthelezi has been criticized by the usually supportive South African news media, and some businessmen have begun to question his commitment to peace.
In a show of defiance last weekend, about 40,000 Zulus - wearing traditional garb and carrying shields, spears, and sticks - poured into a stadium on the outskirts of Soweto to hear King Goodwill Zwelithini, the Zulu monarch, deliver ``a special message of peace.''
It was the first such audience with the king, or imbizo, to be held outside Natal province, the territorial base of the country's 7 million Zulus. Nearly half the Zulu population lives outside Natal - most of them in the industrial complex around Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Most of the audience were supporters of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party who live in men's-only hostels, which have become flash points in the violence sweeping black townships near Johannesburg. The rally, which was billed as a cultural occasion rather than a meeting of Inkatha, took place four days after Mr. De Klerk signed a decree outlawing the carrying of spears in designated unrest areas.
``The call to ban the bearing of cultural weapons by Zulus is an insult to my manhood,'' the king said. ``It is an insult to the manhood of every Zulu man.''
Large black-and-white banners, however, called on Zulus to observe the limited ban on spears announced by the government last week. The Zulu king backed up his address with a petition to Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok calling on government to ``leave us clad in our harmless cultural weapons.''
The king insisted the government should turn its attention to the automatic weapons, explosives, and grenades of the ANC.
According to a study released last week by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry, an independent monitoring group, Inkatha was responsible for 66 percent of political violence in black townships around Johannesburg. Such violence has killed 1,805 people in the past nine months. The study found so-called traditional or cultural weapons - such as spears, knives and sticks - were used in 16 percent of attacks. Firearms and explosives were used in 47 percent of cases.
At the two-day peace conference sponsored by government in Pretoria last weekend, both Buthelezi and King Goodwill portrayed the ANC as the major aggressors. The ANC boycotted the meeting, objecting to De Klerk being both a referee and a belligerent on the issue of violence.
Buthelezi's verbal commitment to peace contrasted with his opposition to efforts to set up a committee, headed by the Rev. Frank Chikane of the South African Council of Churches, to arrange a follow-up conference of all parties.
The conference recommended instead that a ``fully representative forum'' be established through negotiation. A continuation committee - including church leaders, businessmen, and representatives of the ruling National Party and Inkatha - was set up. A separate committee will establish ties with anti-apartheid church leaders, who also boycotted the meeting, and the ANC to ensure their involvement.
The ANC has said it will attend a conference proposed by church leaders and jointly sponsored by the government, the ANC, and Inkatha. Inkatha remains ambivalent.