A TENTATIVE truce in the civil strife between rival anti-apartheid groups in Natal province could end the decade-old feud of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi with the outlawed African National Congress (ANC). The rapprochement would mark a major step toward black unity and perhaps open the way to eventual negotiations between the South African government and the ANC.
Peace talks among Mr. Buthelezi's Inkatha Movement, the United Democratic Front (UDF) - the main national anti-apartheid coalition - and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the black trade union federation, began in June at the urging of jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela.
Two weeks ago consensus was reached on a document to be ratified soon at a summit between Buthelezi, ANC President Oliver Tambo, and the presidents of the UDF and COSATU. All parties have agreed in principle to the meeting, but no date has been set.
According to COSATU lawyers the document contains a framework for an enduring peace in the Natal conflict, but clearly has wider implications for the formation of a united black front to pressure the government for negotiations on black political rights.
The immediate aim of the peace moves is to end the brutal civil strife which has pitted Zulu traditionalists, loyal to Buthelezi, against progressives who identify with national anti-apartheid groups allied to the ANC.
The conflict in Natal's sprawling shantytowns - which have become known as South Africa's ``killing fields'' - has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people over the past three years.
``The document we have drawn up is based on a consensus between all parties, and it should help to end the violence in Natal,'' Buthelezi said last week in an interview.
Several previous peace initiatives by business and church leaders over the past two years have either been stillborn or have ended in an impasse. An accord reached last year failed to filter down to the ranks of ordinary blacks embroiled in the conflict.
The Pretoria government has tended to portray the conflict in Natal as another manifestation of ``black on black'' violence. But civil rights activists argue that the main dynamic underlying the violence is the government's strategy of highlighting divisions among the opponents of apartheid.
The immediate cause of the conflict, most analysts agree, is anti-apartheid rivalry for the support of black residents.
The Zulu leader's reluctance to take part in earlier peace initiatives and his apparent refusal to discipline Zulu ``warlords,'' have created suspicion among civil rights workers concerning Buthelezi's motives.
But the peace effort acquired a new momentum following a letter to Buthelezi from Mr. Mandela in April, which called for urgent moves to end the ``deplorable conflicts'' in Natal in the interests of achieving a broader black unity. Mandela also urged the ``restoration of cordial relations'' between Buthelezi and exiled ANC President Tambo. The relationship between the two had soured after a 1979 meeting held in London to discuss anti-apartheid strategies.
Chief Buthelezi has refused to support the ANC's armed struggle and advocacy of economic sanctions against South Africa as a strategy to end white rule.
Since receiving the communiqu'e from Mandela, Buthelezi has been addressing a series of ``prayer meetings'' in rural areas at which he reads Mandela's letter to his supporters and drives home his message of black unity.
In a July 29 speech to the Central Committee of his Zulu-dominated Inkatha Movement, Buthelezi acknowledged that the peace talks had initiated a momentum toward black unity and lamented the fact that killings were continuing despite the initiative. In recent months, Buthelezi also has replaced a button bearing his own photograph with one bearing Mandela's picture and the words: Freedom for Mandela.
The Zulu-based Inkatha has the same colors - black, green, and yellow - as the outlawed ANC. And Buthelezi, once a colleague of Mandela's in the movement's youth wing, claims to have represented the ANC tradition until 1961 when it embarked on the ``armed struggle.''
Buthelezi has maintained a cordial relationship with Mandela throughout the latter's incarceration and has refused to take part in negotiations with the white-led government until Mandela and other political prisoners are freed.
The recent peace moves could strengthen Buthelezi's position in the anti-apartheid movement.
``Through the peace initiative Chief Buthelezi is trying to build his image as a serious anti-apartheid figure,'' said Gerhard Mare, author of a controversial biography on the Zulu leader. ``It will be a huge victory for him if he can win the acknowledgment of the ANC [African National Congress].''
Buthelezi believes the planned summit meeting of anti-apartheid leaders will have wider implications than the Natal violence.
``It is quite clear that one cannot separate the violence from the differences that gave rise to the violence,'' Buthelezi said.
A visit last week to the sprawling townships around Pietermaritzburg revealed a violence-weary community longing for peace. Unfortunately, the week after the document was drawn up, the worst single outburst of violence occurred in the rural township of Mpumalanga, where more than 20 people were killed.
One of the most intensive and sustained legal initiatives in South Africa's history has failed thus far to halt the endemic violence, which has degenerated in some areas into gang-type warfare between rival groups of black youths.
But COSATU's lawyers succeeded in 1987 and 1988 in winning a series of temporary court injunctions against Inkatha officials, known as ``warlords,'' to restrain them from assaulting, killing or intimidating other citizens.
These injunctions led to a sharp reduction in the level of violence and provided the impetus for criminal court proceedings against Inkatha officials. These, in turn, spurred the first serious peace talks.
As part of the deal, all but one of the criminal actions against Inkatha officials were withdrawn. But the killing has continued. In spite of overwhelming evidence against them, all but two of the Inkatha warlords - those arrested under emergency laws after the murder of a COSATU trade unionist and her family in April - are still at large.
COSATU's lawyers have blamed the failure to end the violence on police bias, the incompetence of state law officers, and the reluctance of the judiciary to allow the courts an affirmative role in resolving the conflict.
A plethora of legal affidavits and dossiers implicate the South African police in outright partiality towards Inkatha warlords. But there have also been incidents of security forces aiding black supporters of the UDF.
The government has bolstered the perception of official bias by using restrictions, detentions, and bannings against COSATU and UDF activists, while Inkatha members remain untouched.
Lawyers say that the combined effect of these actions has drastically undermined the community's respect for the rule of law and dashed hopes that the courts could provide an alternative to the revenge killings and reprisals.
Buthelezi blames the violence primarily on the socio-economic and political deprivation of apartheid. But he also charges that the UDF and COSATU - since their creation in 1983 and 1985, respectively - have waged a vendetta against him and have failed to control their followers in Natal.
``Some people thought they could destroy us,'' he said. ``But now they realize it is not as simple as that.''
Civil rights lawyers insist that the major escalation in the violence came after July, 1987, when Inkatha launched a heavy-handed recruitment drive aimed at winning support for Buthelezi's ``Indaba'' proposals for a multi-racial legislature in Natal.
Buthelezi, who has chosen to work within government-sanctioned structures to end apartheid, is both leader of the anti-apartheid Inkatha organization, which claims a membership exceeding 1 million, and head of Kwazulu, the fragmented base of the country's largest and most homogenous tribal group. His rigorous defense of the free enterprise system and his rejection of sanctions, has won him the support of white business leaders and Western governments alike.
But he has consistently rejected the Pretoria government's offers of nominal independence for Kwazulu and insists that the only way forward is for the government to negotiate with recognized black leaders about the enfranchisement of blacks within a single constitution.
The dilemma facing the ANC is that by acknowledging Buthelezi it could be playing into the hands of the government, which needs his support to lend credibility to its negotiating plans.
``I think the government realizes that I am one of the players they have got to talk to,'' said Buthelezi. ``But I have made it clear that they can't draw me in alone, while excluding the others.'' The prospect of Mandela's release, and speculation the government may allow an internal wing of the ANC to operate under his leadership, has raised the question of what the future relationship of the two leaders would be.
Buthelezi says he would not object in principle to the unification of Inkatha and the ANC, subject to Inkatha's approval. ``I would be prepared to serve under Dr. Mandela, if that was the feeling of the people,'' he said.