THE multiracial commission overseeing the run-up to the country's first all-race elections in April is coming under increasing pressure to seize control of the defiant KwaZulu homeland, the stronghold of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
The Transitional Executive Council (TEC), the multiparty body governing the democratization process, is considering the action as a means of removing the last major obstacle to the ballot and to stifle escalating violence in Natal Province, which encompasses KwaZulu.
Western diplomats and peace monitors say that unless the confrontation in Natal can be resolved within the next week or so, it might be physically impossible to hold the elections there.
``The longer government takes to act, the more chance there is for Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Inkatha Freedom Party to prepare resistance,'' says Jacob Zuma, African National Congress (ANC) candidate for the premiership of KwaZulu Natal province.
``Government and the TEC can just go in and tell Buthelezi that he is no longer chief minister and remove him from that post with far more legal and moral credibility than they had in Bophuthatswana and Ciskei,'' says the ANC's most senior Zulu, who has until now adopted a conciliatory posture toward the Inkatha leadership.
But President Frederik de Klerk indicated yesterday that the government did not support a takeover of the KwaZulu homeland at this stage. He said greater deployment of security forces could be expected in Natal in the future.
``In the weeks to come, we will deal with the volatile and explosive situation. We will definitely talk about making wider use of the South African Defense Force [SADF],'' De Klerk said.
Tension has reached the boiling point in Natal, Western diplomats and peace monitors say. Some 350 people have died in spiraling political violence in the past week as pro- and anti-election factions confront each other in the streets.
The ANC is due to stage a massive protest march in Durban, Natal's biggest town, today in support of its demand for free political activity in the province.
The threat of confrontation increased yesterday after a crucial meeting Wednesday between Chief Buthelezi and Judge Johann Kriegler who heads the Independent Electoral Commission, the body charged with certifying the April poll.
Judge Kriegler received a cool reception from Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly when he read out a list of steps required from the KwaZulu administration to ensure a free and fair poll.
The judge was repeatedly shouted down and jeered by the rowdy assembly and was accused by senior KwaZulu officials of being biased toward the ANC.
Buthelezi said he was prepared to cooperate to a point with organizing a free and fair poll, but set conditions for the use of public facilities, which made a mockery of the judge's requests.
Several thousand KwaZulu civil servants loyal to Inkatha marched through the streets of Ulundi yesterday as a rival group of civil servants opposed to Chief Buthelezi planned widespread protests in the territory if Buthelezi is not removed from office by Monday and replaced by an administrator.
``It is impossible to see a solution emerging,'' says Khehla Shubane of the independent Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. ``It is a highly explosive situation which could erupt at any moment, but it would be disastrous to postpone the election.''
The only sign of hope yesterday was the agreement between the ANC and Inkatha on the names of two international mediators to settle outstanding constitutional differences: former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington.
But Western diplomats are highly skeptical about the role of international mediation in resolving the impasse between the ANC and Inkatha.
The situation in Natal is threatening to erupt against a national backdrop of political turmoil and insurrection in several other black homelands teetering on the brink of collapse.
Ciskei, a small black homeland that is home to a section of the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape, capitulated on Tuesday when its controversial leader, Oupa Gqozo, quit as 3,000 striking policemen took over the homeland's main stadium and detained senior police officers. The homeland, which is to be administered by officials appointed by the TEC, was still tense yesterday as Mr. Gqozo vacated the presidential palace and the SADF took up position. All Gqozo's ministers are to be sacked.
Two other homelands - Lebowa in the northern Transvaal and Qwa-Qwa in the Orange Free State - also plunged into crisis yesterday.
SADF troops, which have been praised by ANC officials for their role in the ousting of President Lucas Mangope in the black homeland of Bophuthatswana on March 11 - took control of strategic installations in Lebowa yesterday. They were hampered by striking civil servants demanding pension pay-outs and guarantees of job security.
De Klerk, who has ordered the suspension of 10 KwaZulu police officers for their alleged role in provoking political violence by supplying arms to Inkatha, is facing a virtual mutiny in the top ranks of the police force.
Two police generals, including the deputy police commissioner, have refused to leave their offices and appear to enjoy the support of Police Commissioner Gen. Johan van der Merwe, who is insisting that procedures must be followed before they can be suspended.
Senior police officers insist the two generals should have a fair hearing before suspension. General Van der Merwe says he will quit if allegations against them are found to be true. De Klerk has said he will instruct Law an Order Minister Hernus Kriel to suspend the two generals if the police commissioner fails to resolve the issue.
The TEC has recommended steps that would place the controversial KwaZulu Police under central control and initiate an international investigation into the allegations.