HIS media image is that of a ruthless warlord. He is a thorn in the side of the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC). But his thousands of followers in Natal's killing fields refer to him respectfully as "Baba Gwala."
Harry Gwala, the ANC's veteran Zulu strongman in strife-torn Natal province, is starting to talk peace. For more than three years he has talked war, talk that made him one of the most feared black leaders in the country.
In a Monitor interview recently, Mr. Gwala showed a side of himself that has remained obscured behind his Draconian public image.
"Provided our people are not provoked, there is a chance that violence could subside here," he said in his sparsely furnished ANC office in this town trapped in the midst of Natal's fighting. In the middle of one wall was a small poster of his former deputy, Reggie Radebe, who was assassinated last year.
"There is a chance of peace," he said, repeating a call he had made several days earlier for the holding of joint peace rallies between the ANC and the rival Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the town.
His unexpected call has become the talk of the rural Zulu settlements surrounding this quaint colonial town. Gwala's change of heart - although he rejects that description - appears to have come after a recent visit to the rural settlement of Maqongqo, located in the breathtaking landscape of the Table Mountain area adjoining the Valley of a Thousand Hills near here. Early last month, Maqongqo was the scene of the massacre of six Zulu children connected to local IFP members, after the enclosed pickup tru ck in which they were traveling was ambushed by unidentified gunmen.
They were among thousands of people who have died in Natal's fierce political conflict over the past decade.
The strife pits supporters of the traditionalist IFP against the more urbanized ANC in a contest for political power among the South Africa's 7 million Zulus.
Gwala was taken on an aerial tour of the area and was able to see the devastation of rural settlements once occupied by ANC supporters.
"The amount of devastation was unbelievable," he says. "It looked as though a nuclear bomb had exploded there."
Pierre Cronje, a white legislator who represents the ANC in the minority Parliament in Cape Town, and who has worked closely with Gwala since Cronje switched from the liberal Democratic Party in 1991, says that Gwala was deeply moved by the visit.
"I think he realized at Maqongqo that you can't solve this conflict with guns," Mr. Cronje says. Gwala "realized that peace must be linked with reconstruction and rehabilitation of this shattered society."
Cronje says that Gwala was a brilliant negotiator, because he was able to combine his solid grass-roots support with a strong intellect.
"The ANC leadership should bring him into national negotiations," Cronje says.
Gwala accompanied ANC President Nelson Mandela on a series of peace rallies in rural Natal recently. Some of Mandela's peace message appears to have rubbed off on him. But Gwala did not show any overt signs of affection for Mandela during an hour-long interview with the Monitor. Pride of place in his office is given to a framed color photograph of Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz.
Gwala has been feeling the heat from the ANC leadership in recent months over some of his more extreme rhetoric, which includes his threat to kill IFP "warlords" and their associates and his dismissal of peace accords and negotiating forums in the past. Gwala is a hard-line Communist who embarrassed the ANC and even the South African Communist Party by backing the unsuccessful coup against former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991.
Gwala, who at 73 is only a year younger than Mandela, was released from jail in 1988 after serving 12 years of a life sentence for political offenses.
But even a severe physical disability - Gwala has lost the use of his arms - has not been able to diminish the immense stature and authority of this former teacher and trade unionist.
Gwala is a small man with a hearty laugh and a good sense of humor. He is well-read, and has a passion for soccer.
"The reason I exercise a considerable amount of influence is that I live among my people and I suffer with them," Gwala says.
He says his greatest disappointment after he was released from prison five years ago was the undisciplined and unruly behavior of black youth supporters of the ANC. "I found that many of our young people didn't understand that in the ANC you are organized into structures and you pay subscription fees," Gwala says.
"When we told them that you don't hijack buses and taxis but you pay for them ... it was a rude shock to them," he says. "They have been told by the black consciousness movement that black is beautiful. When you tell them that humanity is beautiful, they don't take to that.
"We are going to have a lot of trouble once independence has been achieved because of these high expectations. Everyone expects to drive in a car and expects butter in his house.
"We've got a lot of work to do."