WIDESPREAD unrest erupted in black townships west and east of Johannesburg and near Durban, as tens of thousands of supporters of the Zulu monarch converged yesterday on Pretoria for a meeting between King Goodwill Zwelithini and President Frederik de Klerk.
At least eight people were killed as Zulus armed with sticks and spears mobilized outside men-only hostels in strife-torn townships east of Johannesburg.
Zulus - many dressed in traditional leopard skins and carrying cowhide shields - converged on the Union Buildings in Pretoria where the meeting between Mr. De Klerk and King Goodwill took place.
There was a large police presence and Zulu marchers were escorted by security forces and armored vehicles. By midafternoon an estimated 30,000 Zulus had gathered in Pretoria.
At one point, a prolonged volley of gunshots rang out from the crowd gathered in front of the Union Building, but the Zulu marchers did not display firearms.
Six hours before the rare meeting between the head of state and the Zulu monarch, De Klerk held talks with African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela about plans to curb political violence in the strife-torn townships of Katlehong and Tokoza east of Johannesburg.
De Klerk and King Goodwill were to discuss the future ownership of the KwaZulu homeland after the country's first all-race ballot on April 27, and the future of the Zulu monarchy.
Western diplomats described the meeting as crucial and a De Klerk adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested that De Klerk would use the meeting to assure the Zulu monarch that his status and salary after the elections were secure, regardless of the future of the KwaZulu homeland.
The Zulus, who fought off attacks from both the Boers and the British during the last century, have a strong historical claim to the land known as Zululand and their ownership of the land is a highly emotive issue.
The meeting between De Klerk and the king took place against the backdrop of rising tensions between the ruling National Party government and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) whose leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, has vowed to boycott the April ballot.
The king, who is traditionally the monarch of all Zulus, has been a virtual captive of Chief Buthelezi, who as head of the self-governing KwaZulu territory pays his salary.
But in recent months, the king has hinted on several occasions that he would like to play a broader role and act as a mediator in the impasse between IFP-supporting Zulus and those loyal to the ANC.
The Zulu monarch's role took on a new meaning after the election last week of ANC moderate Jacob Zuma, as the ANC's candidate for the position of premier of Natal province. He has indicated his willingness to guarantee the king's position as a constitutional monarch in Natal regardless of the future of the KwaZulu homeland.
Buthelezi's hard line contrasts with a series of hopeful signs in the past week that parties opposed to the draft constitution adopted in November are beginning to take part in the structures set up to oversee the country's complex transition to democracy:
* On Sunday, the militant Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) announced that it was suspending its armed struggle and would take part in the April 27 ballot. The decision also opens the way for the PAC's military wing, the Azanian Peoples' Liberation Army, which has committed several acts of terror in recent months, to become part of a multiparty National Peacekeeping Force that is due to be operational by March.
* The decision on Jan. 5 by the nominally independent homeland of Ciskei to break ranks with the conservative Freedom Alliance and take part in the Transitional Executive Council (TEC), a multiracial commission charged with overseeing government in the run-up to the election. Bophuthatswana, another nominally independent homeland, is expected to follow Ciskei's example.
* Gen. Constand Viljoen, leader of the right-wing Afrikaner Volksfront, admitted in a Rapport newspaper interview on Sunday that he was at loggerheads with more militant right-wing leaders like Conservative Party leader Ferdie Hartzenberg and Afrikaner Resistance Movement leader Eugene Terre Blanche and sent out what was widely interpreted as a political cry for help.
Buthelezi, who says the IFP will make a final decision about participation in the April election at a special conference on Jan. 29, has staked his political future on a hard-line strategy that has begun to alienate many IFP officials and has halved the IFP's popularity according to two recent opinion polls.
Fear of IFP-supporting Zulus fanning political violence were vindicated yesterday.
For the first time in months, civil unrest was reported from the normally peaceful townships of Alexandra and Soweto as hostel-dwellers and IFP supporters tried to enforce a call by some Transvaal IFP leaders and tribal headmen for Zulus to stay away from work.