THE dramatic fall of the nominally independent black homeland of Bophuthatswana, which symbolizes the final collapse of grand apartheid, has turned the political spotlight on KwaZulu, the last of 10 tribal homelands resisting the country's first all-race elections April 27-29.
``The fall of Bophuthatswana is a stark reminder of the farcical system of nepotism, patronage, and corruption set up by the National Party government to further the ideology of apartheid,'' says Sampie Terre Blanche, an economist at Stellenbosch University outside Cape Town. ``When you look at the scale of corruption in the name of the homeland system, it is nothing less than fiscal plundering.''
Bophuthatswana and KwaZulu were formed under an elaborate plan to deprive black South Africans of their South African citizenship by placing them in 10 politically ``independent'' - but economically impoverished - rural homelands.
The homelands, which make up about 13 percent of South Africa, were created on the basis of land identified as tribal in laws passed by the South African Parliament in 1913 and 1936. Nominal independence was bestowed on four of the homelands - Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda, and Ciskei - between 1976 and 1982 after widespread suppression of internal dissent.
Under the interim constitution adopted last November by leaders of most of the major parties, blacks regained their South African citizenship in January, and the homelands will cease to exist after the elections.
The grand-apartheid plan, which is now in tatters, has cost South Africa an estimated $10 billion in funds and a further $3 billion to $4 billion in futile efforts to lure by incentives South African industry, and the jobs they created, away from the cities to the homelands.
The massive and wasteful bureaucracies set up under the homeland system will be consolidated, and their employees integrated into the new provincial administrations.
A strike by civil servants, which sparked the popular uprising in Bophuthatswana on March 11, spread to the homelands of Ciskei and Lebowa Tuesday, where homeland employees are demanding that their pensions be guaranteed after the election.
The Transitional Executive Council the multiracial commission charged with overseeing the run-up to the April poll, set up a task force Tuesday to defuse the mushrooming discontent of hundreds of thousands of homeland civil servants.
Since Bophuthatswana's President Lucas Mangope was ousted jointly by the the Pretoria government and the African National Congress (ANC) and put under house arrest, re-integration of the homeland civil service into the South African administration has begun.
KwaZulu, which has self-governing rather than independent status, is an integral component of Natal Province, where supporters of the ANC and the Zulu-based Inaktha Freedom Party have fought an on-going, low-grade civil war for roughly a decade.
Human rights advocates are increasingly concerned that conflict in the province, which claims an average of 300 people each month, could erupt into a full-blown war and jeopardize the April ballot.
``There are signs that we are on the brink of a territorial war which would involve widespread `political cleansing,' '' says Carole Baekey, director of the Durban-based Community Law Center, which provides paralegal services to communities throughout Natal.
Inkatha leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who pays lip-service to a free and fair election, is leading a boycott of the election until the government and ANC meet the party's demands for greater provincial autonomy.
ANC Presdident Nelson Mandela, received as a liberator by a crowd of some 30,000 jubilant supporters here Tuesday, is due to meet the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini, in the KwaZulu capital of Ulundi tomorrow.
The two are due to discuss the constitutional impasse between Inkatha and the ANC, the King's demand for an autonomous state, and spiraling political violence in the province.
``My desire is to give him a lifeline, a silver bridge across which everyone can retreat,'' Mr. Mandela told supporters at a rally in Mmabatho Tuesday.
Western diplomats and political analysts, however, remained skeptical about the meeting. ``I don't think there is any chance that the IFP will still run in the April election,'' says Bill Johnson, national coordinator of the Launching Democracy Project of the independent Institute for Multi-Party Democracy (MPD) in Durban.
ANC officials have warned that KwaZulu's days are numbered, a claim Inkatha leaders rebuff. Opinion polls indicate that Chief Buthelezi has far more support than Mangope had.
``There is no prospect at all of the KwaZulu police and civil service turning against Chief Buthelezi,'' says senior Inkatha official Walter Felgate.
But as the election draws closer, Buthelezi's defiance may be causing internal splits in the IFP.
Analysts say that the IFP could break up and some of its senior officials could join the ruling National Party or the liberal Democratic Party.
Since President Frederik de Klerk legalized political dissent in February 1990, the homelands Transkei, Venda, Kangwane, Lebowa, and KwaNdebele have sided with the ANC, while KwaZulu, Bophuthatswana, and Ciskei have joined an alliance with the white right-wing to demand greater regional autonomy.
In January, Ciskei - under mounting pressure from its civil servants for guarantees regarding jobs and penions - agreed to join the election process. But the civil servants there remain restive.
The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which is responsible for organizing the poll, is due to set up offices in Bophuthatswana on March 21.
A government official said that if the IFP makes it impossible to hold the election in parts of Natal, the IEC is empowered to excise certain areas from the vote count and save the overall poll.
KwaZulu, which is home to some 8 million Zulus, the country's largest ethnic group, refused to accept independence and thus forfeit the Zulus' rights as South Africans. The Xhosas, the country's second largest ethnic group with about 6 million members, were divided between the homelands of Ciskei and Transkei.
The country will have to grapple with apartheid's legacy for decades.
``The subject [ethnicity] has become taboo in liberal circles precisely because government for so long used ethnicity as a divide-and-rule tactic,'' says John Kane-Berman, director of the independent South African Institute of Race Relations. * Part of a series of occasional articles on the campaign for South Africa's first all-race elections. Previous articles ran Feb. 28 and March 9.