NEARLY a year after South Africa's historic all-race elections, a political split that was patched up has again reopened, threatening President Nelson Mandela's coalition government.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the irascible, unpredictable chief of the large Zulu tribe, is threatening to pull out of the government if his demands for international mediation are not met.
Fearing his Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) would be marginalized by the African National Congress (ANC), Chief Buthelezi threatened civil war before the elections last April to push for strong regional powers for Zulus. The promise of international mediation persuaded him to join the poll at the last moment, but so far the Mandela government hasn't kept its promise.
Since the elections, he has largely kept a low profile in the new coalition government as home affairs minister.
But last week he stormed out of Parliament and told Western diplomats he might leave the government if Mr. Mandela and Deputy President Frederik de Klerk failed to invite international mediators to discuss the role of the Zulu monarch and regional powers for a new permanent constitution, being drawn up now.
Zulus, often seen as warlike, defied white colonial rule in the 1800s. At 8.5 million, they're the largest ethnic group in South Africa, and Buthelezi wants virtually total autonomy for their KwaZulu-Natal Province.
But the IFP's 10 percent minority weakens his clout, and he says Zulus won't be given the powers they deserve under an ANC government.
ANC ministers accuse Buthelezi of bullying, and argue that the proper forum for such complaints is in Parliament and the Constituent assembly. But the publicity-hungry Buthelezi is hoping to gain more influence, and he occupied center stage by walking out while the world's media was in town.
``These temper tantrums will not get us to bend over backwards,'' said a visibly irritated Mohammed Valli Moosa, deputy minister of provincial affairs and constitutional development,
Mandela and Mr. De Klerk met with Buthelezi on Friday, but failed to resolve the matter. A presidential spokesman said mediation could proceed if there was agreement on the terms of reference and a genuine deadlock on outstanding constitutional issues.
ANC ministers hope Buthelezi is bluffing, noting his past brinkmanship strategy. They note that his decision on whether to continue with the boycott will be made during an Inkatha congress in the KwaZulu-Natal town of Ulundi on March 5-6.
But Western diplomats believe Buthelezi might stand by his threats and perhaps force a provincial election to rewrite the provincial constitution with increased powers.
Human rights groups fear Buthelezi's move could fan greater violence in an area where ANC-Inkatha factional fighting killed more than 10,000 people over the past decade. The monthly death toll, which reached 300 before the elections, dropped to 50 after the poll, but has risen to 100 this year.
Intimidation is rife by local pro-Inkatha chiefs , who are urging their followers to boycott local elections due in October.
Joe Matthews, a senior Inkatha official and deputy minister of safety and security, said there were no signs of recent increased violence. A military source told the Monitor that troops were on alert in KwaZulu-Natal, home to Durban port.
Mandela held a security meeting yesterday, but has played down speculation that tough measures would be taken in KwaZulu-Natal, where a state of emergency was imposed temporarily during the pre-electoral violence.
Deputy President Thabo Mbeki told the Monitor the new democratic government could deal properly with the situation, unlike the previous white regime where some security members had links with anti-ANC death squads. ``Things are different now. We will be able to handle any potential problems,'' he said.