A NEW drive for peace in the embattled townships and rural areas of Natal province, launched a week ago by African National Congress President Nelson Mandela, is gaining momentum nationwide despite a wave of urban terror attacks against white civilians by black extremists.
Five whites were killed and several injured in three attacks on civilians this weekend.
The new peace initiative, which mainly concerns the warring supporters of the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in Natal and the black townships around Johannes- burg, has already sparked off a flurry of local-level peace meetings and appears to have created a new longing for peace.
In the past week:
* ANC and IFP leaders came together in the war-torn Ndwedwe district near Durban and established an interim peace forum.
* A multiparty delegation - including national ANC leaders - visited IFP leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's headquarters to discuss a "Zulu" peace initiative, which would involve IFP-leaning Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.
* ANC Zulu strongman Harry Gwala, a self-described communist who heads the ANC's Natal Midlands region, called for joint ANC-IFP rallies and said the time had come to talk rather than fight.
* Peaceful ANC and IFP rallies, monitored by local and international observers, were held in the townships south of Johannesburg over the weekend to mark the 23rd anniversary of the massacre of 69 black demonstrators in Sharpeville, which has become the most emotional day in South Africa's political calendar.
Natal has become the focus of the peace effort because the conflict here poses a major threat to any attempt to implement a negotiated political settlement and hold the country's first democratic elections, which will be held as early as April next year.
"If we are going to have elections, let us create conditions for elections," says Mr. Gwala, a veteran hard-liner who appears to have had a change of heart after seeing from the air the devastation wrought on homes and villages in rural Zulu settlements. Since six Zulu children were killed two weeks ago, ANC supporters have been driven out of their homes in the area and whole villages have been devastated.
When Mr. Mandela visited the strife-torn rural areas a week ago, he called on the ANC's followers to embrace IFP members and spread the message of peace.
"If you know any Inkatha members in this area, do not beat them, do not kill them.... Love and peace is an important weapon. Tell them that the ANC wants peace. Avoid violence," he told an ANC meeting near the strife-torn town of Richmond.
In a Monitor interview, Gwala called for local-level talks with IFP leaders and conceded that he had erred in the past by portraying IFP leaders as the enemy. "I am very hopeful, but I am not over-optimistic," Gwala said. "Provided our people are not provoked by the other side, there are chances that violence may subside here."
Since he was elected chairman of the ANC's Natal Midlands branch in 1990, Gwala has become a thorn in the side of moderate ANC leaders because of his war-like talk and contempt for peace efforts.
While the new peaceful emphasis marks a clear departure from Gwala's past rhetoric, peace efforts in Natal contrast sharply with a new wave of urban terror attacks in other parts of the country.
In the first attack on whites March 19, gunmen with automatic weapons fired on a vehicle taking children to school south of Johannesburg near the small town of Walkerville, killing a woman and her 14-year-old son. A 13-year-old girl was also killed. Two eyewitnesses who spoke to the killers said their first target had been a school bus. In the second attack, gunmen opened fire in a motel bar near the Eastern Cape town of Fort Beaufort, killing an 18-year-old student.
Police said the shootings bore the hallmark of attacks carried out late last year by the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA), the military wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).
The PAC, which joined multiparty negotiations earlier this month, has not admitted responsibility for the attacks. Some PAC leaders have condemned the shootings while others have said that the PAC will continue to negotiate while APLA continues with its revolutionary "armed struggle."
The ANC has unreservedly condemned the killings as acts of terror.
IFP Chief Buthelezi told a Sharpeville Day rally in the sprawling township of Vosloorus that he was prepared to meet Mandela without preconditions and urged the ANC leader to join him in nationwide peace rallies to end the political violence that has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past five years.
"It is crucial that the leadership of the ANC and the IFP get together to solve the issue of violence," Buthelezi told the crowd.