A MILITARY showdown between supporters of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the South African Defense Force (SADF) has drawn closer following the failed summit between the country's three major political leaders and the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini.
The meeting was held on Friday in an effort to win Chief Buthelezi's endorsement of the April election.
But with only 16 days to go before the historic ballot, Buthelezi continues to demand a delay in the poll and is rejecting an African National Congress (ANC) offer to secure the future position of King Goodwill by making him constitutional monarch of strife-torn KwaZulu/Natal.
``I think things have reached the point of no return now,'' says Eugene Nyati of the independent Center for African Studies in Johannesburg. ``The time has come to get tough with Buthelezi. Any hesitation now would merely encourage the spoilers to wreck the election.''
But a defiant Buthelezi warned Saturday that should the ANC and government attempt ``strong-arm tactics'' to suppress what he called ``the will to form a Zulu kingdom,'' the residents of KwaZulu/Natal would become the last line of defense.
Defense forces prepare
Western diplomats expect a 12-day-old emergency in strife-torn Natal Province to move into top gear this week to ensure that Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party does not disrupt South Africa's first all-race elections scheduled for April 26-28. SADF ranks swelled in the province last week with the arrival of about 2,000 national servicemen.
``Any chance of accommodating Buthelezi before the election has passed,'' a Western diplomat says. ``And after the election, his position will be much weaker.''
ANC President Nelson Mandela and President Frederik de Klerk have ruled out a delay in the elections, and the Independent Electoral Commission reaffirmed last weekend that the ballot would go ahead in Natal.
``It will not be incident free, but I am absolutely confident we can achieve the goal of a free and fair election,'' Mr. De Klerk said here Saturday.
A SADF brigade has moved into a standby position in the northern Natal town of Eshowe - less than 50 miles south of Buthelezi's headquarters in the KwaZulu capital of Ulundi.
Contingency plans have been made to deploy a South African Navy vessel as a hospital ship at the port of Richards Bay southeast of Ulundi to receive wounded SADF troops if a shooting match erupts. The ship will also be used as a standby helicopter landing pad and refueling facility for South African Air Force helicopters used in support of Army troops.
In another ominous development, the controlling body of worker hostels situated in the townships around Johannesburg announced on Friday that it would deploy its ``own military'' countrywide. The hostels strongly back Inkatha. The SADF ``would no longer be welcome at the hostels,'' the announcement stated.
That development followed the fatal shooting of Inkatha youth leader Jeff Sibiya in a hostel east of Johannesburg earlier Friday. Inkatha claims he was shot by SADF soldiers.
Both Mr. Mandela and De Klerk indicated last weekend that they had reached the end of the road in trying to win Buthelezi's cooperation and would now concentrate their efforts on King Goodwill.
Working groups set up at the summit, which are due to report back at a follow-up meeting on April 14, will concentrate on negotiating Goodwill's post-election powers.
In terms of the ANC offer, Goodwill will be recognized as a monarch with constitutional powers, rights, and obligations. He would have a royal constabulary and a budget and would be consulted and briefed on legislation.
His salary would be paid by the KwaZulu/Natal administration, and traditional chiefs would be appointed to a royal council. The powers offered by the ANC are similar to those being demanded by Buthelezi for the Zulu monarch.
But Buthelezi is refusing to separate the position of the king from his own demands for greater regional powers for KwaZulu/Natal, which he insists must be agreed to and implemented before the election.
Seeking UN endorsement
If the king accepts the ANC's offer, he would be required to guarantee that all parties be allowed to campaign peacefully in the elections.
ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa said Saturday that the ANC would seek a United Nations endorsement of its offer to Goodwill and would ask the Constitutional Court, which is to be set up after the election, to underwrite its offer. ``We want to show this is not a gimmick; we are in earnest,'' Mr. Ramaphosa said.
Goodwill remains a virtual captive of Buthelezi until the election when Buthelezi's political base falls away and the KwaZulu administration is integrated into the new KwaZulu/Natal region.
In recent months, Buthelezi has increasingly used Goodwill's influence and authority to bolster his own faltering political position. But it has become clear that the real reason behind Buthelezi's boycott strategy is to avoid an election that opinion polls indicated he would lose to the ANC - even in his stronghold of Natal.
``After the election, I think we will see a gradual distancing of the king from Buthelezi,'' Mr. Nyati says.