AFTER a series of false starts, peace talks to end internecine warfare in South Africa's Natal Province are taking place this week. Weeks of maneuvering over location and mediation brought about an agreement for direct talks between delegates of the Inkatha movement and emissaries from the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Inkatha is led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of South Africa's dominant Zulu tribe. The UDF is a multiracial political group with close ties to the union movement and to the banned African National Congress.
These talks are meant to bring about fuller discussions between the presidents of all four groups to help end two years of violence in and around the provincial capital of Pietermaritzburg and the port city of Durban. More than 1,000 blacks, including many women and children, have died so far.
On the surface, the fighting has appeared to be a power struggle between supporters of the UDF and Inkatha. Both organizations oppose apartheid, but disagree on how to end it. The socialist-oriented UDF wants universal suffrage in a unified South Africa (where blacks outnumber the ruling whites by 4 to 1). Inkatha, which has a more capitalist bent, has indicated a willingness to compromise on both issues as an interim measure.
But observers fear that the conflict is deeper and more intractable than a straight fight for territory between rival organizations.
According to Gavin Woods, director of the Inkatha Institute, the struggle is largely over scarce resources - land, water, housing, jobs - in desperately poor and fast growing settlements. In a study last year, Mr. Woods's researchers found that ``95 percent'' of activists at the cutting edge of the conflict who proclaimed loyalty to either side had ``no political or ideological understanding of these movements.''
Woods's findings were treated skeptically in pro-UDF and COSATU circles because of his Inkatha connection. And the emphasis on underlying socioeconomic forces was seen as an attempt to shift the blame for the conflict away from Inkatha.
But similar evidence has now been unearthed in areas north of Durban. Two University of Natal researchers have found that only a quarter of those who identified themselves as pro-Inkatha vigilantes could name Inkatha's leaders. Similarly, less than a fifth of those who saw themselves as pro-UDF ``comrades'' could identify their group's leaders.
Protracted moves to bring together the main adversaries were nearly sabotaged late last week. Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok imposed severe restrictions on Archie Gumede, the UDF leader in Natal, prohibiting him from taking part in Sunday's peace talks. But, after strenuous protests, he modified the restrictions, freeing Mr. Gumede and another UDF man, Azar Cachalia, to participate in the discussions.
The escalating warfare had also spurred new initiatives for peace from top churchmen as well as from imprisoned ANC leader Nelson Mandela.
Mr. Mandela wrote to Chief Buthelezi expressing his dismay at the violence. ``The most challenging task facing the leadership today is that of national unity ... I consider it a serious indictment against all of us that we are still unable to combine forces to stop the slaughter of so many innocent lives.''