AN official of the African National Congress was gunned down outside a hotel in Natal Province late Saturday after dining with a group of visiting professionals from the United States.
Skumbuza Ngwenya, chairman of the ANC branch in the strife-torn township of Imbali near Pietermaritzburg, was assassinated by unknown gunmen as he left the Windsor Hotel.
The incident gave a group of Americans on a fact-finding tour of South Africa a rare close encounter with the ongoing violence in the Natal province.
Mr. Ngwenya "was extremely intelligent and articulate and had a very strong presence," said Kent Wong, director of the Center of Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
Mr. Wong shared a table with Ngwenya and spent most of the evening talking to him.
"We spoke at length about the subject of political violence. He expressed his concern that most of the violence was motivated by the South African government," said Wong.
The UCLA researcher said Ngwenya had told him he did not believe the theory that the political violence was random, and noted that people who established a link between the state and the violence were often killed before they could complete their work.
"He looked at his watch several times during the evening and at about 10 p.m. he rose and apologized and said he would be in danger if he stayed any longer," Wong said. "He walked out of the front door of the restaurant and within minutes we heard two bursts of gunfire."
Ngwenya died minutes later from head and neck wounds. He is another victim in an unrelenting war between supporters of the ANC and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party that has claimed nearly 6,000 lives in Natal province alone since it began seven years ago.
An independent judicial commission heard evidence last week of links between the state and Inkatha in fomenting violence in Natal and the black townships around Johannesburg.
The ANC and human rights groups have repeatedly accused the government of waging a secret war against the ANC through a "third force" which operates within and outside the security forces.
An average of 100 people - mainly Zulus - die in Natal every month in a vicious civil war which claimed more than 1,200 lives in 1991.
Last month at least 91 people in the province died in the political violence that rages through both urban and rural areas.
Last week unidentified gunmen shot and killed three children after ambushing the automobile of Imbali deputy mayor Abdul Awetha, who is also the leader of Inkatha in the township.
Police say a group of 16 men with AK-47 rifles attacked the car in which Mr. Awetha and his 16-year-old son were traveling.
Awetha and his son, Ismail, escaped after returning fire, but the gunmen then apparently walked up to the car and killed the three children aged between six and nine years.
ANC officials have insisted that there is no evidence that their members were involved.
The Ngwenya assassination on Saturday came after a recent escalation of political violence in Imbali township, which had been relatively subdued throughout last year.
Wong said the group of Americans and South Africans stayed at the scene for three hours until Ngwenya's body had been removed.
Mr. Ngwenya had been dining with a group of American college professors, health-care workers, and community activists who are in South Africa to study local conditions during the political transition.
They have held a number of meetings with church groups, health-care workers, education officials, and agricultural workers. They also met with US Embassy officials.
Wong said he felt a tremendous frustration at the fact that more was not being done to investigate and curb the violence in Natal.
"I am very concerned about the role of the security forces in the violence," said Wong.
"And I am concerned at the US government's haste in embracing the South African government without seriously investigating the killings that are continuing," he said.
"The horrible reality that people in the townships have to live with hit us full in the face," said Cynthia Brown, program director of Southerners for Economic Justice in Durham, North Carolina.
"Our goal was to learn more about the political, social, and economic shift during the transition in South Africa," said Ms. Brown. "This experience moved us beyond the academic into the full horror of the reality here."
She said her visit brought home the fact that it was going to take a lot more than a change in political leadership to change the quality of life and the way people relate to each other in South Africa.
"We have found it a very much more complex situation here than is portrayed in the American media."