ESCALATING political conflict between supporters of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) erupted in blazing gun battles in the streets of downtown Johannesburg yesterday, leaving about 20 people dead and more than 200 injured.
The rampant political violence has prompted speculation among diplomats and peace monitors that the election in KwaZulu/Natal - or even the election as a whole - might have to be delayed to allow time for international mediators to settle differences between Inkatha and the ANC.
The Democratic Party (DP) in strife-torn Natal Province called yesterday on the Transitional Executive Council, a multiracial commission overseeing the run-up to the first all-race elections scheduled for April 26-28, to postpone the ballot in KwaZulu/Natal.
``Peace structures in the region have totally broken down, and it appears that neither the ANC nor Inkatha can - or will - do anything tangible to curb the rampant violence and destruction,'' a DP statement read.
The unprecedented scenes in the city center were sparked by a protest march by tens of thousands of Inkatha-supporting Zulus staging a demonstration in support of demands by the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini, for a sovereign Zulu state. The marchers defied an agreement reached between organizers of the demonstration and the police to leave their arms behind.
Fire by Inkatha-supporting Zulus was returned by armed ANC security guards when a group of demonstrators stormed the ANC headquarters. At least nine people died, and 10 were wounded in the battle that ensued.
``This outrageous conduct will dramatically increase pressure on President Frederik de Klerk to take firm steps to restore law and order and protect innocent lives,'' says a Western diplomat.
Government officials met yesterday with ANC and Inkatha representatives to discuss arrangements for a planned meeting between Mr. De Klerk, Mr. Mandela, and King Goodwill. ``Preparations for the summit are in progress,'' a government official said.
As the Zulu marchers ran amok, terrified motorists did U-turns to escape the scene. Several people were shot dead by the marchers, and at least three marchers were killed in a drive-by shooting.
According to police and eyewitnesses, gunfire was exchanged on several occasions between the Zulu marchers and unidentified snipers on building tops. Inkatha spokesman Ed Tillet claimed yesterday that ANC snipers had been positioned in the city ahead of the march. The ANC denied the claims. Prolonged automatic gunfire first erupted around 11 a.m. in the vicinity of the Carlton Hotel where US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright was winding up her first visit to South Africa to deliver a message of support for the elections.
Mrs. Albright was unable to leave the hotel to meet with ANC chairman Thabo Mbeki due to the chaos on the streets, a diplomat said. Mr. Mbeki also was unable to leave ANC headquarters several blocks away because a gun battle erupted as marchers tried to force entry into the building.
In a statement before her departure, a somewhat shaken Albright said the violence was a ``sobering reminder of the need for all parties to reject the path of violence and intimidation and reaffirm their commitment to the process of democratic transformation.
``I deeply regret the violent incidents that have occurred in Johannesburg today and elsewhere in recent days,'' she said. ``It is essential that this election takes place as scheduled. Intimidation and violence cannot be permitted to deny the South African people their opportunity to join the ranks of the community of free democracies.''
ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus said the ANC guards had opened fire in self-defense. He said there had also been fire on the ANC headquarters from surrounding buildings.
``Security guards at Shell House [ANC headquarters] fired warning shots in the air but were forced to open fire in self-defense when they came under fire from heavily armed men trying to enter the building,'' Mr. Niehaus said. ``The lives of ANC leaders were at stake.''
The eruption of violence in the city center took place against the backdrop of rising tensions between ANC and Inkatha-supporting Zulus in Natal Province, where more than 150 people have died in politically related violence in the past 10 days - more than 50 over the weekend alone.
Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel ordered police reinforcements to the city center yesterday. For the first time he urged the Zulu monarch to calm his supporters. ``In view of the ... serious situation in central Johannesburg, the King of the Zulus must be urged to exercise his influence to calm and control his subjects,'' he said.
ANC leaders have called on De Klerk to flood Natal Province with South African Defense Force (SADF) troops and to take over the functions of the KwaZulu government in Ulundi headed by Chief Buthelezi.
The ANC argues that these steps are necessary following the meeting between Independent Election Commission head Judge Johann Kriegler and Buthelezi last week in which the judge failed to receive the necessary assurances from Buthelezi to secure a free and fair election in Natal.
De Klerk, who held crisis talks with Buthelezi on Saturday, has indicated that more SADF troops will be deployed in Natal. But he has ruled out appointing an administrator to replace Buthelezi, whose position as chief minister of KwaZulu lapses after the election campaign. Inkatha officials insisted it was a Zulu and not an Inkatha demonstration. But King Goodwill's political stand dovetails with Buthelezi's demands, and the two leaders share the same constituency.