One Last Truce for South Africa's Great Reconciler?

Peace is breaking out in the blood-soaked province of KwaZulu Natal, and resolution of the province's brutal political battles may prove a last triumph for Nelson Mandela before he retires in 1999.

There is serious talk of the province's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) joining Mr. Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) - an amazing prospect, given the bloody turf battles between the two since the 1980s. The violence reached its peak in 1993, in the run-up to the elections that swept Mandela to power. Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi built the IFP to defend the interests of Zulus against their historic rivals, the Xhosa, the ethnic group that dominates the ANC.

In his speech Tuesday to the ANC's 50th conference, Mandela excoriated all non-ANC political players in the country, save one. Jaws dropped when Mandela referred to Mr. Buthelezi as "my leader."

The IFP and ANC are already partners in the multiparty Government of National Unity. Buthelezi is home affairs minister in Mandela's Cabinet. Today, both sides encourage "a culture of tolerance and nonviolent political competition among our respective members and supporters," said Mandela, who comes from a Xhosa royal family but discourages ethnic chauvinism within the ANC. "Many members of the IFP grew up in the ANC, and many of the people the IFP leads were educated in the politics of the African National Congress."

Last month IFP deputy chair Sipo Mzimela called for the IFP to merge with the ANC in advance of the 1999 elections. Buthelezi since has said he was astounded by this suggestion, but Mr. Mzimela maintains he is just voicing "what people [in the IFP] generally are talking about."

Mandela invited the IFP leader to attend the ANC summit this week; Buthelezi declined, but sent a high-ranking emissary. Rapprochement with the IFP is believed to be one reason Mandela has insisted that the ANC elect a Zulu, Jacob Zuma, to the post of ANC deputy president.

The quiet diplomacy between the two parties is working. According to South Africa's Human Rights Committee, in 1993 there was an average of 167 politically motivated murders per month in KwaZulu Natal. This figure fell to 22 as of August, and most recent murders are linked to one warlord's attempts to take over the local ANC.

The IFP is pushing the government for a special blanket amnesty for political crimes committed in KwaZulu Natal. This is opposed by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has the authority to grant individual, but not blanket, amnesties. Interestingly, though, Buthelezi has not been subpoenaed by the truth commission, even though witnesses have said he used his bodyguards as a hit squad.

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