THE long-awaited meeting here today between South Africa's most prominent black rivals holds the key to ending the internecine strife among blacks and to improving the climate for dialogue with the government. The encounter between African National Congress (ANC) Deputy President Nelson Mandela and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi will be the first face-to-face session between the two men in more than 30 years. It is the first top-level session between the two groups since an acrimonious encounter in London in 1979.
``The meeting will certainly advance the peace process if it opens channels of communication between the ANC and Inkatha and encourages the possibility of joint action to stop the violence,'' says Oscar Dhlomo, now an independent mediator who quit as Inkatha's secretary-general last year.
Conflict between supporters of the Zulu-dominated IFP and members of the ANC has caused the death of more than 4,000 people in Natal Province over the past three years. At least 1,000 more have died since the strife spilled over in August into townships around Johannesburg.
Mr. Mandela called off a planned meeting with Chief Buthelezi last April because of strong grass-roots resistance from ANC militants, who argued that a meeting would bestow undeserved credibility on Buthelezi.
But the ANC's national executive agreed to the get-together last December after months of sustained pressure from both Pretoria officials and Western capitals.
Buthelezi himself had sidestepped a number of efforts to draw him into a session involving Mandela along with other black leaders.
The two men are meeting two days before President Frederik de Klerk is to make a major policy speech in which he is expected to announce the dismantling of remaining apartheid laws, such as enforcing residential segregation and the racial allocation of land.
Prospects for the meeting began to improve last November when the ANC elected intelligence chief Jacob Zuma to a key Natal post. Mr. Zuma, one of the few Zulus in the ANC executive, held several secret meetings with Buthelezi and began initiating local accords between aimed at ending the violence. Hopes are high that the encounter will bolster these accords.
There are also expectations that the meeting will encourage Inkatha to join a black unity conference on March 21 and a conference of all political parties in South Africa later in the year.
Inkatha and the ANC agree on the need to end apartheid in favor of universal suffrage, but they are at odds over mechanisms for drawing up a new constitution. Buthelezi opposes the ANC call for an interim government and an elected Constituent Assembly.
The two organizations have also differed over the issue of economic sanctions, with the ANC promoting them as a means to end white rule and Inkatha opposing them because of their effects on blacks.
Hopes that today's meeting would open a new era in black politics were kindled by upbeat comments from both men last weekend.
``We go to our meeting with Chief Buthelezi with the intention that there will be no winners and no losers,'' Mandela said Saturday at a rally in the Western Transvaal township of Ikageleng. ``We are going with an appeal to forget the past and to concentrate on the future.''
At a youth rally in Natal Province Sunday, Chief Buthelezi said there would be no peace in South Africa unless the ANC and Inkatha reached an accord. He said he was leading the Inkatha delegation ``in the hope of holding Dr. Mandela's hand and saying: `Brother let us stop the killing and let us go forward as South Africans.'''
Intense hostility between the two groups during the past decade has obscured the close relationship they once had.
Buthelezi served under Mandela in the ANC Youth League in the 1950s, and the two men maintained a cordial relationship throughout Mandela's 27 years behind bars. In 1975 the ANC gave the green light for the formation of a Zulu-based cultural movement - Inkatha - which would broadly advance the aims of the ANC.
But hostility erupted between the two organizations as a personality cult developed around Buthelezi. Gradually it became a violent competition for political supremacy, and by 1987, it had turned into a form of civil war.
Legalization of the ANC in February 1990 and Mandela's release shortly after seemed to inflame the conflict further, as the political limelight focused on the new relationship between the ANC and the government.
But it was after August, when the ANC agreed to suspend its 29-year-old armed struggle, that the war spread to townships around Johannesburg and reached new levels of brutality.
Although Buthelezi has often publicly stated his opposition to violence as a political tool, he has been widely seen as using Inkatha as a ``private army'' - often in collaboration with elements in the South African security forces.
Yet despite the conflict, Mandela has made it clear that he appreciates key stands Buthelezi has taken in the anti-apartheid struggle: refusing to accept Pretoria-style independence for the KwaZulu homeland, and insisting on Mandela's release from prison before entering negotiatiions with the government.
Ten months before his release, Mandela wrote to Buthelezi with a plea for black unity and an end to the strife in Natal. Today's meeting will determine whether they can achieve that goal together in coming months.