THE fortified police bunker perched high on the lush green hill above this rural Zulu settlement has been deserted for three months, and the strife that once ravaged the valleys below it has ceased.
The political power struggle in South Africa's Natal province has claimed thousands of lives since it began nine years ago. Last year alone more than 1,400 people died in an undeclared civil war between Zulu supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
But a peace accord between the leaders of Mthoqotho, an ANC-aligned community, and the leaders of two neighboring IFP-aligned communities - Inadi and Bhobhomono - has ended internecine violence and the intimidation of children that had closed the main schools in the area.
This rare oasis of peace in Natal is the result of impartial policing, the initiative of local tribal chiefs, and communication between leaders of the warring parties. "The conflict here had gone on for so long that people said: `Enough is enough,' and they decided to put an end to it," says Zenzele Sithole, a village headman who helped negotiate an accord two years ago that has survived Natal's bitter conflict and proved that peace is possible.
"Many people died, houses were burned, and livestock was stolen on a daily basis," Mr. Sithole says. "Life became intolerable." ANC backers often attacked the buses of IFP supporters, leading to revenge attacks.
Today, the schools are functioning again, the communities' residents interact and visit each others' areas, and development work - such as the provision of water and electricity - has begun.
"Things have returned to normal since the peace agreement was signed," says Amos Mbambo, a tribal elder in the IFP-supporting Bhobhomono area, as he tends his cattle.
With the help of Capt. Danie Meyer, a local policeman, and Radley Keys, a member of the liberal Democratic Party's violence monitoring unit, leaders from the three communities were brought together for a series of talks culminating in the signing of a local peace accord in early 1991.
But leaders of this ANC-aligned community were unable to explain why other strife-torn communities had not been able to achieve the same result.
"We don't have a magic solution, but clearly the very fact of establishing communication between the two groups has played a major role in bringing about peace in our community," says Ndabazezwe Ngcobo, a local elder who took part in the talks.
"I think the agreement is holding because it has isolated and exposed people who were coming to stir up violence in the area," Mr. Ngcobo says. "By agreement, individuals not known to the community were reported to the police, and the police would act on the information. Now these people are no longer coming here."
The community here at Mthoqotho decided to switch allegiance from the IFP to the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front in 1988 before the ANC was legalized. Ngcobo says the headman decided to switch allegiance when an IFP-aligned deputy chief came to the area and pressured the community to attend IFP meetings.
Ngcobo says once a local deputy chief has been appointed by a Zulu chief, it is almost impossible to have him removed. The community now bypasses the offending official, Deputy Chief Aaron Dhladhla, and takes its problems to Chief John Zuma.
The momentum of violence in Natal now threatens the implementation of a negotiated nationwide settlement and the holding of elections in that province.
Opinion polls are divided as to whether the ANC or IFP would win a majority of the Zulu vote in Natal. Some polls indicated that Natal's white voters, who mainly support the ruling National Party, could hold the balance of power between the rival black groups.
But inhabitants of Mthoqotho have heard nothing about the potentially contentious elections.
"We don't know much about elections," Sithole says with a worried look on his face.
"That is something for educated people. If it did come to elections then the community would have to discuss what would happen," Sithole says.