ZULU monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini has severed contacts with Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, triggering an open power struggle for the heart of the Zulus.
There are fears in political circles that the split could spread beyond KwaZulu/Natal Province and disrupt the carefully constructed national unity achieved before and after South Africa's first all-race elections last April.
It presents the most serious challenge President Nelson Mandela has had to face since taking office.
``We are trying to play down a really serious situation,'' says Harry Gwala, Natal Midlands leader of the African National Congress (ANC). ``The situation is very ugly in the province.''
The rift between Mr. Buthelezi and his uncle, King Goodwill, has been brewing since the monarch invited Mandela to attend the annual Shaka Day celebrations this Saturday.
Shaka Day, which commemorates the death of the revered Zulu chief Shaka, stabbed to death by a half-brother in 1828, is the ultimate symbol of Zulu unity. In the past, Shaka Day has been dominated by Buthelezi and the IFP to the exclusion of the ANC.
Buthelezi said the king had not consulted him regarding the invitation to Mr. Mandela and, therefore, it was invalid.
The controversy stems directly from the longstanding political battle between the ANC and Inkatha for majority support of the country's 8 million Zulus, whose allegiance is divided between the rival parties. More than 12,000 people have died in the conflict in the last decade.
A compromise deal before the April ballot drew Buthelezi into the electoral process in exchange for constitutional guarantees for the preservation of the Zulu monarchy.
The deal was consummated when the ANC endorsed the IFP's controversial electoral victory in KwaZulu, and Buthelezi was made home affairs mininster in the government of national unity (GNU).
But tensions have continued to simmer between supporters of the two sides. The death toll has dropped from about 300 a month before the election to around 100 a month after.
For Buthelezi to retain majority support among Zulus in Natal, he needs either to maintain the support of the Zulu monarchy or to discredit the present king.
During the election campaign, Buthelezi exploited his position as the king's chief adviser to win Zulu votes. But in recent months the monarch has been drifting closer to the ANC.
Shaka Day provides the chief, whose party controls the provincial parliament, a timely arena in which to show he still commands substantial support.
``Buthelezi has a firm grip on traditional Zulu structures and will soon call an assembly of chiefs to shore up his position,'' says Natal University political scientist Mervyn Frost. ``Has has shown himself in the past to be a master strategist and he could do so again.''
The chief's trump card is the leverage he holds in the government of national unity. If his power base in KwaZulu were threatened, he could respond by withdrawing from the government, throwing it into disarray.
If the Zulu problem is unresolved, the Zulus will be excluded from the constitution-making process and will be in position of holding the government ransom in next election as they did in the last, by threatening violence if they weren't part of the process.
``The question now is whether the ANC leadership will jeopardize the unity of the GNU for what is essentially a regional power struggle in KwaZulu/Natal Province,'' said a Western diplomat monitoring the escalating row.
Aides of Mandela indicated the president would attend the anniversary in spite of Buthelezi's objections. But at a three-way meeting on Monday between Mandela, Buthelezi, and the Zulu monarch, Mandela decided not to attend Shaka Day - apparently putting the unity of the GNU above the ANC's sectoral interests in KwaZulu/Natal.
The political tension surrounding the meeting was intensified by a rowdy group of IFP supporters who marched on the royal palace at Nongoma during the meeting and stoned Mandela's helicopter.
King Goodwill responded with a statement from the Royal Committee cancelling the Shaka Day celebrations and announcing that the King would have no further contact with Buthelezi.
The king stopped short of appointing a new chief adviser but his intervention has been widely interpreted as the severing of his ties with the IFP and the cementing of his closer relationship with royal advisers who are sympathetic to the ANC.
In a statement Tuesday, Buthelezi insisted that the Shaka Day celebrations would go ahead as planned because preparations were too far advanced for a cancellation.
``It is not a question of defying the King,'' says Natal Premier Frank Mdlalose. ``He can advise as the father of the nation but he has no legislative authority.''
Asked whether he still regarded himself as the King's traditional prime minister and chief adviser Buthelezi said: ``I cannot answer that question. I have not had direct communication from the King. He will have to tell the nation.''
Most analysts believe that Buthelezi could win the first round of the power struggle.
``He has the best of both worlds now. He has national leverage as a Minister in the GNU and could bolster the position of the IFP in Natal Province.''