Kwa-Zulu Natal: South Africa's Perilous Powder Keg

A power struggle between the ruling ANC and the largest ethnic group, the Zulus, threatens to tear apart the country's fragile unity

GOODNESS SHUSHA, sitting in a refugee camp in South Africa's troubled KwaZulu-Natal province, is too scared to visit her house on the next hill or speak to her parents trapped in enemy territory across the river.

Ms. Shusha said she caught a glimpse of them last month in town, but decided not to approach them in case hostile people were looking.

She watches her charred home from her new abode, a flimsy tent donated by the Red Cross, but does not descend from the ridge for fear of attacks by the Inkatha Freedom Party, which controls much of the province.

In October, she fled with only her wedding ring and six children when a band of Inkatha men opened fire and burned down her house and that of other supporters of the rival African National Congress (ANC), killing 14.

"I cannot go to see my parents. I've had no word of them and am too scared to cross to the other side," she said, a blanket wrapped around her thin cotton dress. "Crossing the line means the risk of being killed. So we avoid each other."

South Africa's transition to black majority rule since last year's elections has been hailed as a miracle, with civil war deftly averted.

But in the lush eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, home to one-quarter of the 40 million population and heartland of the largest ethnic group, the Zulus, a power struggle between Zulu-dominated Inkatha and the central ANC-run government simmers on.

In the black urban squatter camps and hamlets in the verdant sugar-cane fields, just miles from the beach hangouts of surfers and tourists, the carnage that claimed 10,000 lives over the past decade, continues.

Human rights groups report hundreds of thousands of people displaced and 1,000 killed in this region since the April 1994 elections. The death toll from tit-for-tat killings has dropped dramatically from the 300 a month before the poll, but houses are burned down regularly and intimidation is rife. Weapons still pour across the porous border from Mozambique.

In this area 150 miles south of Durban, warlord Sigoloso Xolo and his henchmen have run the tribal chief out of town and parade brazenly down dirt roads with firearms jutting from under their jackets. Chief Xolo's name is mentioned by locals when they describe attacks, and he was arrested last year on 15 counts of murder, but still runs free on bail.

Xolo declined to meet reporters to refute such claims. His 10 armed guards menacingly prevented the journalists from passing through the gate in front of his home.

The root of the violence is a conflict between an ancient tribal society and modern politics. Inkatha leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi wants KwaZulu-Natal to be autonomous. The ruling ANC, however, wants one centralized government.

KwaZulu-Natal is the last piece of the puzzle to stability in the country now that white right-wingers have stopped their sabotage, and until the conflict over autonomy is resolved, fears of destabilization will not go away.

Buthelezi denies he wants secession, but does call for greater provincial control over finances and security in a federalist system. The ANC's opposion to his wishes is straining their coalition government, in which Buthelezi is Home Affairs Minister. He has pulled his party out of the Constitutional Assembly, which is writing a new constitution, and is calling for international mediation to straighten out the dispute.

"I think there is a crisis. I honestly think so. There are disagreements on fundamental issues," he told foreign reporters last month.

"The ANC has put forward constitutional proposals carefully crafted to emasculate any type of autonomy policy formation and final decisionmaking at the provincial level."

Critics depict him as an unpredictable man, subject to wild mood swings and brinkmanship, who is using the nationalist cause to build a regional power base.

"Perhaps it [Buthelezi's personality] is the biggest problem we have at the end of the day," said Jacob Zuma, the provincial minister of economic affairs and tourism. As national chairman of the ANC, he is the organization's most senior Zulu official.

"I'm not sure Inkatha themselves are able to define what they are up to. I think there is a lot of posturing for subjective means."

Buthelezi, claiming to represent Zulu traditionalists, has great influence over most of KwaZulu-Natal's 300 tribal chiefs, whose role is influential in the community, but largely ceremonial.

Ethnic pride taps an emotional nerve, particularly among the poor and marginalized who feel dignified recalling the Zulu warriors, like Shaka, who is credited with creating a Zulu nation, and the struggle against British colonial rule.

"Zulu nationalism is a myth," said legal expert Peter Rutsch who has written on the topic. "The Zulu nation really only began in the 19th century. If you look at the wars that were fought, the Swazis and Xhosas [other tribes] fought more than the Zulus, [who] are not intrinsically warrior-like. Buthelezi has played this card to perfection."

Another player in the mix is Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. Many Zulus have divided loyalties between Buthelezi and the Zulu king, who has broken from the Inkatha leader and declared himself politically neutral under active courtship by the ANC.

One member of the royal family confessed to feeling torn between the two: "People are confused because they respect the king but believe in Buthelezi's message."

Inkatha has gained some moral high ground since the embarrassing admission by President Nelson Mandela that he had ordered gunmen to shoot to kill on pro-Inkatha marchers outside the ANC headquarters last year. His reneging on an agreement with Buthelezi last year for international mediation on outstanding sovereignty disputes has not helped either.

But this has not stopped the ANC's drive to wrest ground from Inkatha. One recent strategic move was to switch responsibility for paying tribal chiefs from the provincial government to the central.

There are also moves to end complicity between white police and Inkatha that marked the apartheid years. A new Investigation Task Unit (ITU), which reports to the central government, has arrested in recent weeks eight prominent figures alleged to be involved in political violence, including a white security force member and a senior Inkatha official.

Mandela himself is actively travelling to the rural heartland of KwaZulu-Natal to prove "no-go" areas (off-limits to the ANC) no longer exist. His message was defiant during a visit on June 16 to Ezakhani township.

"The killing of Zulu by Zulu must stop," he said to a crowd of 30,000. "Killers will not have any mercy from us, no matter what position they occupy."

Inkatha accuses the ITU of carrying out a witch hunt and says the ANC is trying to bribe the chiefs.

Independent violence monitors from local and international organizations believe many chiefs - although desperate for the heftier salaries offered by Mandela - may refrain from accepting the money due to intimidation from the Inkatha leadership. But they say the ITU may serve as a deterrent to further deaths.

The battlefront is heating up with the approach of local elections in November. Human rights groups fear pro-Inkatha hitmen and chiefs will prevent a free and fair vote.

A master of brinkmanship, it is unclear what Buthelezi plans. Some analysts speculate he will resign from the national parliament and move back to his beloved province. Others doubt he would want to forfeit his powerful place in the national Cabinet.

Most analysts believe he is unlikely to push for secession, which would alienate local businesspeople and could prompt the central government to send in troops. Civil war seems remote but continued destabilization does not.

Meanwhile, people like Shusha wait and watch from the hills.

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