THE brutal political power struggle in this deceptively beautiful former British colony - with its lush vegetation and undulating hills - may determine whether South Africa's first all-race elections in April are judged ``free and fair.''
The future of this politically polarized region could also determine whether the South Africa that emerges from the April 27-29 election can maintain its territorial integrity in the face of claims for ethnic Zulu autonomy. The fragmented homeland of KwaZulu - which reflects the region's history of violent conquest, first by the Boers (Afrikaners) in the first half of the 19th century and later by the British - is an integral part of Natal.
Natal Province - to be known as KwaZulu/Natal in the interim constitution - has already endured a decade of low-grade civil war between Zulu supporters of the traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and those who back the more urbanized African National Congress (ANC).
Natal's 7.5 million or so inhabitants - of whom nearly 5 million are Zulus - represent about 20 percent of the country's population. The rest of Natal's population is comprised of about 1 million Indians, 750,000 whites, and 150,000 mixed-race coloreds. In addition, more than 3 million Zulus live outside Natal, mainly in the Johannesburg complex and eastern Transvaal Province.
More than 10,000 people have died in the conflict. During the past three years, political deaths in Natal account for nearly half of all lives claimed in political violence.
Now that the country's first democratic election is approaching, fears are mounting that an Inkatha-led boycott of the poll could discredit the election result in Natal to such a degree that it would cast doubt over the national poll.
Two recent massacres of ANC supporters have jolted diplomats and election monitors. On Feb. 19, 15 youths were gunned down in a half-way house at Creighton, a small village near Ixopo near Natal. On March 6, 11 people were gunned down in Bhambayi, a crowded squatter area near Durban with a long history of conflict between IFP and ANC supporters.
Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the IFP leader who has remained on the periphery of negotiations over the past four years, has rejected the interim constitution on the grounds that it is a recipe for domination by the ANC and its South African Communist Party allies.
Chief Buthelezi rejects claims by President Frederik de Klerk that the interim constitution is essentially federal in nature and allows for self-determination for ethnic minorities such as the IFP-supporting Zulus and right-wing Afrikaners.
Buthelezi insists that a recent package of concessions approved by the ANC and government in a bid to persuade the IFP and white right to take part in the election do not alter the dominance of central government power in relation to the regions.
``I will not lead the IFP into an election that ratifies a fatally flawed constitution ... that is going to polarize the country,'' Buthelezi said on March 7.
Most analysts and diplomats say Buthelezi's brinksmanship at the negotiating table has won some important concessions from the ANC on the devolution of power to the provinces. But they add that his recalcitrant style and hard-line tactics, which are widely seen as feeding political violence in the region, have lost him most of his former allies in the business and international arena.
``The damage has already been done,'' says University of Cape Town political scientist Robert Schrire. ``Those who might have supported the IFP have gone elsewhere and are unlikely to return at this stage.''
Even two years ago, there was still some doubt as to whether the IFP could beat the ANC at the polls in Natal.
An opinion poll conducted by the Johannesburg-based Sunday Times toward the end of last year found the ANC had 46 percent support in Natal compared to the IFP's 19 percent. But this does not mean that an outright ANC victory is a foregone conclusion. The poll gave the National Party (NP) 21 percent of the vote and the liberal Democratic Party (DP) 4 percent, bringing to 44 percent those not voting for the ANC.
Buthelezi has successfully manipulated ethnic emotions to serve his cause. But his dilemma is that he cannot face the prospect of humiliation at the polls. ``The harsh reality is that he is the one man who could prevent the elections taking place,'' says a Western diplomat. ``So every effort has to be made to bring him into the constitutional process.''
Indian vote a factor
One of the most unpredictable factors in the Natal poll is the way the Indian community will vote. Indians, caught between their traumatic experience under apartheid and fear of black domination, have registered a 40 percent undecided vote in recent polls.
The remaining 60 percent appear to split around 50-50 between the NP with some opting for the DP and pro-Indian Minority Front of Amichand Rajbansi.
``Our people remember the past and how they were forcibly removed from their homes under apartheid,'' says Kishore Juggath, chairman of the ANC's Lower North Coast Zone near Durban. ``The problem is that a lot of Indians fear black violence, and they believe that the National Party can still provide them with security.''
But Indians and whites are not the only people disillusioned with failed efforts to end the decade-old conflict between Inkatha and ANC-supporting Zulus.
``The ANC and IFP are always killing each other, and I am scared that the election is going to be very violent,'' says Sipho Dhlodhlo, a laborer at an automobile repair shop in Umhlanga north of Durban. ``I am a Christian, and I yearn for peace in our land. I am hoping that things will change after the election and that there will be more jobs and houses.''
Many Zulus in Natal are card-carrying members of both the IFP and ANC but support neither. ``Most black people in Natal will say they belong to the IFP or the ANC,'' says Vusi Ndlele, a technical student from KwaMashu near Durban. ``But many will vote for the National Party in the hope that it will bring peace.''
ANC President Nelson Mandela was given a hero's welcome when he visited Natal in December and drew crowds ranging between 5,000 and 15,000.
Both Mr. Mandela and De Klerk have rejected outright any question of a sovereign state in Natal.
The ANC's Jacob Zuma, former chairman of the ANC's branch in southern Natal, is the ANC's candidate for premier of the region and is widely regarded as the man most likely to replace Buthelezi as the region's most prominent politician. He has been a key figure in behind-the-scenes talks aimed at securing the Zulu monarchy.
It remains to be seen whether King Goodwill Zwelithini would accept the role of constitutional monarch with Mr. Zuma as premier of the region. Diplomats believe that this is a possible scenario if reports are true that Mandela has secretly offered Buthelezi a senior government post if he takes part in the election.
Voters wary of ANC power
Following a summit with Mandela on March 1, Buthelezi tentatively registered for the election but insisted that the IFP's participation be conditional on international mediation to resolve remaining differences between the IFP and ANC.
Many voters in the Indian, white, and mixed-race colored minorities have bought De Klerk's message that the power of the ANC must be checked if South Africa is to be spared from the fate of other African countries where abuse of power and corruption have led to rapid deterioration after independence.
``I am not saying that the NP will win,'' said Scott Norkie, a mixed-race artisan who decided to vote for the NP rather than the DP after attending a De Klerk rally in the colored neighborhood of Wentworth on March 3. ``But they will emerge as the second-strongest party and the most effective to keep the ANC in check.''