WHEN the intense conflict between traditionalist and nontraditionalist Zulus in Natal Province spread to Johannesburg's black townships in July 1990, some observers said the final showdown between South Africa's two largest tribes - the Zulus and Xhosas - had arrived.
It hadn't. "The reason for this fundamental misperception is that Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi has successfully used Zulu ethnicity as a tool of political mobilization," says Mervyn Frost, a political scientist at the University of Natal in Durban.
"He has appropriated the symbols of Zulu nationalism for his Inkatha Freedom Party [IFP], and this has created the misleading perception that all Zulus identify with Inkatha," Dr. Frost says.
The power struggle in Natal, which has teetered on the brink of outright war as Buthelezi has felt increasingly removed from political negotiations, is acted out between Zulus who strive toward urbanized values and support the African National Congress (ANC), and Zulus whose lives are dominated by tribal values and who back the IFP.
Only when the power struggle was exported to the black townships around Johannesburg did an ethnic factor came into play: IFP-supporting Zulus versus the others.
Social scientists who attended a recent conference on ethnicity at Natal University have reached a consensus that Zulu ethnicity - as with any form of ethnicity - is a product of historical circumstances rather than a primordial force.
For this reason, they argue, South Africa probably will not fracture along ethnic lines under a majority-ruled government.
"Zulu ethnicity is not something inherent," says historian John Wright, an associate professor at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. "It grew in response to British imperialism and was snuffed out when the Zulus were defeated by the British.
"It started reemerging [after the defeat by the British in the 1870s] in the 1920s because Zulu intellectuals started proclaiming a new ethnicity," Professor Wright says.
"Apartheid ensured that Zulu ethnic messages took predominance over other forces like working-class solidarity and a national identity," he adds.
Professor Frost agrees that Zulu nationalism thrived on attempts to suppress it.
"The more one tries to destroy it, the stronger it grows. What Buthelezi has mastered is the age-old technique of turning a political attack into an attack on the tribe or ethnic group."
Buthelezi has bolstered this technique by identifying closely with the Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini, appropriating Zulu cultural symbols - like the leopard-skin warrior dress, the cowhide shield and spear - as well as marking the anniversaries of famous Zulu historical figures like Shaka, the founder of the Zulu nation.
The IFP leader also portrays the ANC, the major black liberation group, as a Xhosa tribal organization that sees the Zulus as its main rivals.
In fact, the ANC has always stressed its nonracialism and downplayed ethnic differences. While the current ANC leadership is dominated by Xhosas, the organization has had Zulu and Sotho presidents in the past and has whites and other minority groups in its leadership ranks.
Whereas the ANC's Xhosa support straddles the traditional-nontraditional divide, the IFP's power base is overwhelmingly among traditional Zulus.
"If the Zulus were politically united, Buthelezi's power would be quite awesome," Frost says.
Despite the ANC's policy of nonracialism, ANC leaders acknowledge that ethnicity is an important reality that needs to be accommodated in a democratic constitution.
ANC President Nelson Mandela has repeatedly warned his supporters not to ignore the reality of ethnicity and to learn the lessons of Eastern Europe.
"It is true that our policies are nonracial, but let us be realistic about it," Mr. Mandela told delegates at the ANC's national conference in Durban last year.
"There are different ethnic groups in this country and ethnicity - especially because of the policies of the government - is still a dangerous threat to us," he said.
Black attitudes toward ethnicity have been forged during four decades of apartheid, an official policy that has exploited ethnic differences in pursuit of a territorial partition that would leave white power intact.
To further this vision, the architects of apartheid - like former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd - identified tribal areas as the territorial base for 10 future independent ethnic states.
Four such states - Transkei, Ciskei, Venda, and Bophuthatswana - were created before the process ran out of steam. The other six are self-governing tribal homelands.
Apartheid sought to reverse the flow of blacks to the cities by the mid-1970s. But urbanization and economic realities proved far more powerful than the ideology.
The deterioration of the conflict in Natal to the brink of civil war and the violent tensions between the ANC and Ciskei and Bophuthatswana have raised the question: Could South Africa become another Yugoslavia?
"Yugoslavia has fallen apart because separate nationalities had been forced together," says Heribert Adam, a sociologist from the University of Vancouver, Canada, who is presently a professor at the University of Cape Town.
"In South Africa, synthetic ethnicities were coerced to be apart and therefore [now] strive to rejoin one economy and one nonracial state," he says. "People have been immunized against ethnicity by having it continually imposed on them."
The potential for leaders like Buthelezi to exploit ethnic tensions has become a dominant theme in political negotiations and has focused increasingly on how political power should be divided between central and regional governments.
There is a broad consensus among the parties in South Africa that strong regional government is the only formula that can accommodate the country's diverse social fabric.
But there are still differences of opinion over the extent of central government's powers and whether the functions and powers of regions - or federal states - should be enshrined in the constitution. A federal system is regarded by a growing number of South Africans and experts as the only workable compromise.
"If a federal constitution guarantees meaningful regional autonomy to parties opposed to the national majority, the Yugoslavian route may be avoided," Professor Adam says.
"But were South Africa to adopt a centralist constitution against the will of regional actors - even if they are numerically a minority - it risks secessionist movements leading either to greater civil war or the eventual breakup of the country."
Professor Frost agrees. "An ANC-dominated government will have to be very careful that it looks after Zulu interests," he says. "If it is seen in any way to be acting contrary to Zulu interests, the urbanized Zulus could take refuge in the ethnic fold, and this would constitute a formidable bloc."