Retreating Into the Zulu Past

Buthelezi isolates himself from world contacts as he rallies Zulus to derail South Africa's vote

ZULULAND'S capital, set in a picturesque valley that evokes primal images of Africa, is more isolated today than at any time in the turbulent history of the Zulu tribe.

Ulundi, in 1879 the scene of a disastrous Zulu defeat at the hands of British colonial forces, has in the past decade or so been an obligatory destination for foreign diplomats and visiting dignitaries. But in recent months, KwaZulu's capital - a remote spot in northern Natal, about a three-hour drive from Durban - has become increasingly impenetrable to those scores of foreign dignitaries who used to visit.

After formation of the Inkatha Freedom Party in the mid-1970s, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi established himself as a major player on the political scene. He was the first internal black leader to explore power sharing and a federal option for South Africa. His influence grew dramatically in the 1980s, and he was a regular visitor to the White House, Downing Street in Britain, and the German Chancellory in Bonn.

Chief Buthelezi - despite pressure within his own ranks to take part - is leading a boycott of the country's first all-race elections, which could jeopardize the credibility of the entire ballot.

Since Inkatha withdrew from negotiations in July last year, visiting dignitaries have used all their powers to persuade the prickly Inkatha leader to join the political process and take part in the elections, scheduled for April 26-28. Today, Buthelezi would not be welcome at these venues unless he was prepared to abandon his election boycott and become part of the transition to democracy.

The political spotlight shone again briefly here last week when it was announced that African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela would hold his first meeting with the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini.

Instead, Buthelezi, the king's uncle, turned what was intended as a dignified meeting between the two leaders into a public open-air event that would almost certainly have humiliated Mr. Mandela and made his safety impossible to secure.

Clearly, Buthelezi and the king have withdrawn into an ethnic laager (fortress), threatened secession, and warned of a bloody battle ahead for Zulu sovereignty.

Heightened mistrust here of the ruling National Party and the ANC is almost tangible following the March 12 ousting of President Lucas Mangope of the (formerly) nominally independent homeland of Bophuthatswana.

Now, Ulundi is shunning the sanction of international norms and respectability and has chosen to take refuge in the past.

In attempts to talk with Buthelezi, ambassadors have been harangued with seemingly endless prepared speeches when all they wanted was a heart-to-heart discussion.

``It's not that we no longer have access to Chief Buthelezi,'' says one exasperated diplomat. ``It's that we don't have anything to say to him anymore.''

``Buthelezi is saying to the world: `I am going to punish you by unleashing a king bent on an ethnic Zulu state to show how reasonable my own demands were and how wrong you were not to accept them,' '' says Robert Schrire, a University of Cape Town political scientist who has maintained prolonged contact with the Inkatha leader.

Buthelezi made no secret of his displeasure at being overlooked when Mandela and President Frederik de Klerk met with President Clinton in Washington last July.

``I don't know what is going to happen,'' said mine recruitment manager Colin Christie, who is stationed here with the Employment Bureau of Africa. ``But my gut tells me that the Zulus will fight to the finish to defend their territory.''

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