Zulu Chiefs on Front Line Of Natal's 9-Year Civil War

Conflict in South African province pits tradition against modernity

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ZULU Chief Zibuse Mlaba has paid a heavy price for choosing sides in a political power struggle that has challenged the traditional way of life in the rural parts of South Africa's Natal Province and brought the eternal conflict between the old and the new into sharp focus.

"The political atmosphere here is so intense that you cannot live your life without making a choice between the two sides," Chief Mlaba told the Monitor in a new community center high above the Dusi River in the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

The struggle in Natal is between Zulu supporters of the traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Zulus loyal to the more middle-class African National Congress (ANC), who have been waging an undeclared civil war here for nine years.

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Mlaba made his choice in 1988 after his elder brother, who was the chief before him, was assassinated by unidentified gunmen as he sat watching television. The younger Mlaba, who already leaned toward the ANC, reported the killing to the police, but no arrests were ever made. He has no doubt that his brother was killed by IFP supporters bent on curbing the influence of the ANC.

"I haven't slept at home since 1989," Mlaba said. "It is common knowledge that I am a target of the IFP. They regard me as a stumbling block."

Across the Dusi River, Chief Bangubukhosi Mdluli, an IFP-leaning chief, is coming under increasing pressure from his subjects as they see the relative peace and economic development in Mlaba's territory on the other side of the valley. These leaders are the key players in a conflict that transcends politics: The ANC and the IFP represent two different streams of consciousness.

The strategy in ANC ranks is to persuade people and their chiefs to allow "free political activity" in their areas so that people can make up their own minds in the run-up to the country's first nonracial democratic ballot. IFP leaders regard the ANC's strategy as a form of intimidation against IFP supporters.

When ANC President Nelson Mandela spoke at a March 13 rally in the strife-torn Richmond area of Natal, he stressed that the chiefs had a vital role to play in the peace process and that they did not have to become ANC members to do this.

"They serve a better purpose if they are not aligned," Mr. Mandela said.

While both the ANC and the IFP claim to be the true vehicle of black liberation, they have differed fundamentally on strategy. The IFP strongly opposed the ANC's "armed struggle" to end white rule but refused to enter negotiations with Pretoria until Mandela was freed from jail. Politicized Zulu life

The IFP also opposed the ANC's close links with the South African Communist Party and its advocacy of economic sanctions against the country. The IFP advocates a free enterprise system and always rejected the ANC's former leaning toward the nationalization of key industries in a centralized economy.

Since the IFP, initially billed as a "cultural movement," was formed in 1975, traditional Zulu life has been politicized. Inkatha chairmen quickly became more important than chiefs in certain areas and chiefs who did not toe the IFP line were victimized and sometimes killed.

When the United Democratic Front (UDF) was formed in 1983 as a political surrogate for the banned ANC, the tribal chiefs in Natal found themselves at the center of a tug-of-war between the two organizations.

Those who had never been at ease with the rigid authoritarian approach of the IFP looked to the UDF - and later the ANC - as the way to extricate themselves from the devastating internecine strife.

One whole community that opted for UDF membership in 1988 was the community at Mthoqotho near Sweetwaters in the Edendale Valley outside Pietermaritzburg.

Elders of Mthoqotho say choosing sides does not mean turning one's back on tribal customs and the traditional way of life. They argue that Inkatha's commitment to tribal customs is largely directed at mobilizing political support for the IFP.

"We don't see the battle between the old and the new as a problem," says Ndabazezwe Ngcobo, an elder involved in negotiating a peace pact with neighboring Inkatha communities.

"It is just the way things are. Times have changed and the youth no longer accept the old ways without questions.

"We do not feel threatened by the youth going to the towns and cities. They come back and still respect the traditional way of life and the authority of the elders although there is a problem with drinking," Mr. Ngcobo says. He says tribal customs like slaughtering a goat to pay tribute to the ancestors and giving young children a skin bracelet to thank the ancestors are still widely practiced. Battle over development

Harry Gwala, the veteran ANC strongman seen as an advocate of war rather than peace, says the underlying conflict is not one between the IFP and the ANC.

"It is a struggle," he says, "between those who want to preserve the status quo and those who want to enter a 20th century democracy."

The IFP is rooted in the traditional tribal hierarchy and wants to maintain the old order of collective consciousness where communities could be manipulated through the chief.

The ANC, which represents an emerging black middle class, aspires toward urban values and seeks to become part of a Western-style democracy in a modern industrialized economy.

The political conflict between these two adversaries has been intensified by the IFP's attempts to hijack Zulu cultural symbols as its own and the ANC's attempts to portray the symbols of progress and democracy as its own.

On a recent visit to this rural hamlet, for instance, Mandela donned traditional Zulu attire and graciously accepted a Zulu shield and spear and participated in an exuberant Zulu dance.

Mandela's message was clear: Zulu culture is not the property of the IFP, and political rivalry can cut across the seemingly monolithic edifice of Zulu ethnicity.

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