One of South Africa's most bitter political confrontations is pitting two rival black groups against one another in what observers say is a turf battle over traditional Zulu strongholds in Natal Province. Fighting between followers of Inkatha, a Zulu tribal organization, and the United Democratic Front (UDF), an anti-apartheid coalition, has raged around Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital, for several weeks. Although about 100 people have died in the past two months, violence has seriously escalated this week, leaving at least 14 people dead in the last few days.
Observers say the fighting underscores divisions within the black population. Specifically, it highlights the conflict between conservative and more radical forces within the Zulu population.
UDF supporters are seen as challenging Inkatha dominance in Natal Province by trying to establish a stronghold in community organizations. In addition, tensions are being heightened by squatters who have moved in from economically depressed areas.
Although both groups claim to be national liberation movements, their political complexions differ greatly. Inkatha, founded as a Zulu cultural movement, has a large following based mostly on tribal affiliation. The UDF characterizes it and its president, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, as ``government stooges'' because they oppose international sanctions against South Africa and advocate non-violence in the fight against apartheid.
The multiracial UDF is more powerful in other South African provinces and is building a strong base among black trade unions, youth groups, and other local organizations. Many conservative Zulus see it as a threat to traditional tribal structures and thus resent its ``trespassing'' in Natal. The UDF is closely identified with the outlawed African National Congress (ANC). The South African government considers the UDF radical, dangerous, and a front for the ANC.
The UDF and Inkatha blame each other for the fighting. The national president of the Inkatha youth brigade, Musa Zondi, says the UDF provoked violence first by ``trying to beat up and intimidate our members.'' This, he says, could only incite, ``counter measures.''
The UDF admits it too is not ``lily white'' when it comes to violence, but claims it is acting in self-defense. UDF spokesman Jay Naidoo blames so-called ``war lords'' for the fighting. He says these war lords - many of whom are Inkatha members - recruited followers through violent means.
Mr. Naidoo also alleges that the police frequently failed to take action after attacks on UDF followers, ``even when attacks take place in daylight and there are witnesses and the police are given names.''
The police and, more recently, the Army, have been active in black areas, but without much success of halting the attacks. Some observers question whether there are elements within the police force that want to use the violence to reduce UDF influence. The police adamantly deny they are taking sides.
The influx of squatters is making matters worse. Mark Cornell, Pietermaritzburg's mayor, says Zulus feel pressed by the newcomers, who are streaming in from economically stricken regions.
``The local chap sees his whole life threatened,'' says Mr. Cornell. ``His family could have been here for generations. But suddenly he has to compete for a job with somebody coming over the hill who is prepared to work for almost nothing.''
The latest violence comes after a specially constituted ``peace conference'' last week, which was arranged by the local chamber of commerce. Inkatha and the UDF agreed to stop fighting, but spokesmen for both sides said it would take time for the peace message to get through. The groups expect further peace talks at the end of next week.