SITTING beneath a mounted plaster cast of his favorite AK-47 assault rifle, Chief Khayelihle Mathaba tries to explain why the ideal of the Zulu nation raises violent passions for millions of South Africans.
The chief, one of the most feared warlords in the embattled KwaZulu-Natal province, presents a picture of dignified affability as he offers tea to visitors in his cozy home on the edge of his 100-acre fiefdom of cane fields.
Like many tribal leaders of the country's largest ethnic group, Chief Mathaba, who is also a member of the provincial parliament, embodies the contradictions between being a traditional chief appointed from an ancient line of Zulu warriors while participating in an evolving modern democracy.
Mathaba, along with some 300-odd other Zulu chiefs, or amakhosi, are at the center of a power struggle between the African National Congress-led central government and the Inkatha Freedom Party, which dominates the administration of KwaZulu-Natal and threatens South Africa's newfound stability.
The ANC, led by President Nelson Mandela, wants a strong centralized state, rather than a federalist system with strong regional powers as espoused by Inkatha.
Mathaba's detractors say he is a thug and a pawn of Inkatha leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, using the emotional banner of Zulu nationalism to his political advantage. Human rights campaigners say Mathaba, like other Inkatha warlords, has since the days of apartheid hired killers to wipe out ANC opponents.
Anthropologists say the traditional role of chiefs as community arbitrators has changed since colonial times, and political leaders have replaced the king, formerly the paramount power of the Zulu people.
But Mathaba insists that his leadership is legitimate and that he is looking out for his hundreds of subjects. The concern is that the right to tribal law will erode in the modern political system espoused by the government of President Mandela.
"There will be definitely a war in KwaZulu-Natal if the state president [Mandela] keeps on doing things such as instructing his people to shoot at us," Mathaba says. He then boasts of his prowess with guns.
Mathaba oversees one of the most violent areas in South Africa. Just minutes from his cluster of houses with a green Mercedes parked outside, South African police were doing hourly patrols to try to stop the near-daily burning down of huts.
In this area, like many in KwaZulu-Natal, innocent villagers have become victims of factional fighting between Ithkatha and the ANC.
Dozens of barefoot villagers had fled into the cane fields, sleeping in the pelting winter rain with no shelter. The handful who remained among the smoking ruins were too frightened to speak.
"They came in the middle of the night, shooting and setting the kraals [homes] alight," said Cindy Mfeka, looking at her neighbor's house where only some charred shards of clay cooking pots remained. "Most people ran away. We hid under the bed until the sun came up. We never saw their faces."
But who did it? What did she think of Mathaba? She averted her eyes and said nothing.
A young white police sergeant trudging through the mud to survey the destruction said it was difficult to catch the perpetrators who attacked at night. Residents gave no clues: "They are too scared to talk to us," he says.
Mary de Haas, an anthropologist and independent violence monitor, says most of the victims are supporters of the ANC, which Mathaba, with the nod of Buthelezi, was trying to expel from his turf over the past 18 months. Other villagers had been intimidated into joining Inkatha, she said.
She noted that Mathaba had been seen burning houses in 1993 and was arrested that year on charges of murdering an alleged ANC supporter. The charges were dropped after witnesses disappeared. "Mathaba is one of the most brutal warlords and is very close to Buthelezi. He has armed thugs billeted, they've been seen openly walking around with firearms. He's behind the violence. He has conducted a reign of terror," she says.
Mathaba instead depicts himself as the victim of ANC shooting attempts. He claims that a special police unit set up by the central government, which has arrested eight people over recent weeks, is conducting a witch hunt against the Inkatha. "I cannot let myself be investigated. I will not cooperate," he says.
Mathaba struggles to explain why the 9 million Zulus, who fought in the last century against white colonial rule, feel so proud and defiant about their ethnicity. Phrases pop up such as "People respect us." "Once you touch the Zulus, we fight." And "The Zulu nation was powerful and has respect."
He says having a king is partly what sets Zulus apart from other South African tribes. But Mathaba articulates the identity crisis of many Zulu traditionalists, torn between support for Buthelezi and his nephew, King Goodwill Zwelithini, who has embraced the ANC's call for the amakhosi to rise above politics.
"It is painful for us because His Majesty the King is selling out Buthelezi. His Majesty the King has been instructing us not to take part in Inkatha. But he is in the ANC today. He is just playing games. I respect my King. But he is burning the country. I trust Buthelezi."
Mathaba is less confused about his anger toward the ANC. Last week parliament passed a bill that switches the primary responsibility of paying chiefs from the provincial to the central government. The bill is seen as a move to weaken Inkatha's influence. He rejects it as a bribe and says he will not take Mandela's money.
Mathaba also resents what he sees as the ANC's lack of respect for his traditional authority, accusing it, for instance, of holding meetings without his consent.
Mathaba, who inherited his position from his father in 1984, hopes his young son Mtokozisi will succeed him. He sees the role of local chief as arbitrator over disputes ranging from land to matrimony. He has the right to ask subjects to provide for him.
"The powers of the amakhosi are to look after their people and encourage them to sit together. I have influence in traditional matters. I must listen to both sides and make my own judgement."
Almost on cue, a subject enters the house, takes off his shoes, and huddles in the corner on the floor, waiting for his master to address him.