EDENDALE, SOUTH AFRICA — It was a strange sight for those accustomed to the killing fields of South Africa's Zulu heartland.
Longtime enemies David Ntombela of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Sifiso Nkabinde of the African National Congress (ANC) were calling each other "son" and "father" and joking with lively bonhomie at a June 13 peace summit. Just the thought of the two warlords sitting side by side talking about peace was unthinkable a year ago.
"Call me a peacelord," Mr. Nkabinde explained to a puzzled journalist. "We are saying, 'Let bygones be bygones.' "
In KwaZulu-Natal province an embryonic peace initiative is under way to end a decade of virtual civil war between the ANC of President Nelson Mandela and its rival, the IFP of Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
The ANC-Inkatha rivalry is perhaps the most destabilizing factor in an otherwise smooth transition to democracy since April 1994 elections ended white rule. In this province, about 50 people die monthly from the violence the ANC-Inkatha rivalry spawns.
Observers are cautious about the initiative but say it appears to be the first serious effort to end a conflict that has killed some 14,000 people. Warlike rhetoric has decreased, and there appears to be genuine sincerity, they say.
"This is a breakthrough because we are approaching the problem differently," says Jacob Zuma, the ANC's national chairman and provincial economic affairs and tourism minister. "In the past we made accusations. Now we are looking at what we have in common rather than differences."
Skeptics who have seen peace talks before say the parties have simply been trying to quell violence before the hotly contested local elections June 26. They say the four-month-old initiative by provincial leaders is not trickling down to the grass roots. But senior officials of both parties insist that this time is different, for various reasons.
First, they are using a novel approach: looking at history to determine what went wrong.
The ANC and IFP were close during the fight against apartheid but split in 1979 over the ANC's endorsement of armed struggle and sanctions. Then the white-led National Party government fomented violence by supporting Inkatha hit squads against the ANC and by installing Chief Buthelezi as a Zulu homeland leader.
Now, with the National Party's exit in May from the government, Buthelezi is the ANC's senior partner. Relations have improved. "We realized that we come from the same [tree] stem, and there is little holding us apart," Mr. Zuma says.
Second, working together for two years in the provincial cabinet and parliament has made officials realize they have a common goal to promote the province's economic interests. KwaZulu-Natal is blessed with ports, beach resorts, and sugar cane. But many foreign investors and tourists have been deterred by the violence.
Third, white Inkatha hard-liners appear to be losing influence. Inkatha sources say Buthelezi is realizing the errors of his adviser, Italian-American Mario Ambrosini, who prescribed disruptive measures such as withdrawing from constitutional talks.
Also helping soften the IFP's image is its hiring of the British public-relations company Ian Greer to help with the campaign. Speeches are now about policy, not civil war, and Buthelezi now favors campaign visits to shopping centers rather than mass rallies that often have ended in violence.
Observers say another factor in the reconciliation is recent prosecutions of Inkatha leaders that have broken the sense of impunity. A new police unit has arrested some prominent IFP members. More arrests may be expected after revelations about hit squads in ongoing trials of senior security force members.
Then, too, violence may have reached a saturation point. Attempts to ambush Cabinet members from both sides and an attack on the Zulu royal family have made officials realize that no one was safe. "For the past seven weekends, I have stood over an open grave. I simply can not take it anymore," says ANC local official Bhekie Cele.
Buthelezi and President Mandela have endorsed the peace plan. But there is one final challenge, violence monitors say: getting the parties' efforts to filter through to the grass roots, where many jobless people profit from gun running.