It seems flattery will get you everywhere with Mangosuthu Buthelezi, although once it appeared nothing could deter his party from its violent course.
In 1992 the Zulu chief, who heads the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), rallied his troops against their bitter foe, the African National Congress (ANC), saying, "The ANC has to be stopped in its tracks before the future is destroyed." Thousands died before the 1994 elections.
Hence the astonishment of those attending the IFP's national convention in mid-July. Was that ANC Deputy President Thabo Mbeki on stage beside Chief Buthelezi?
Was it really Buthelezi insisting that the traditional praise singer extol not just his virtues but Mr. Mbeki's as well?
Did Buthelezi really say, "We can no longer afford divisions, and we must realize that, in the end, if our country is to succeed, we must stand together, failing which we are doomed to fall together"?
Yes, it seems the Zulu leopard has changed his spots, thanks to wooing by the ANC leadership. A member of the federal Cabinet, Buthelezi has filled in as president-for-the-day at President Nelson Mandela's request when the latter has been absent from South Africa.
Mr. Mandela has always sought peace with the IFP but was undermined by violent ANC leaders in KwaZulu-Natal. He sang Buthelezi's praises from the podium during the ANC's December congress. Behind the scenes, Mbeki, the quintessential diplomat, dropped tantalizing hints that, when he takes over the presidency from Mandela in 1999, Buthelezi might be deputy president.
Buthelezi's interest in this emerging alliance with the ANC is to show the electorate that the IFP is a party of peace. His popularity is not what it was, thanks to revelations last year that the IFP used anti-ANC hit squads backed by the former apartheid regime. He has taken to more diplomatic, constitutional ways of trying to achieve a certain level of autonomy for KwaZulu-Natal.
But political scientist Alexander Johnston of the University of Natal warns that Buthelezi risks alienating the rank-and-file that he once encouraged to hate the ANC. A constituency within the IFP actually wants the bellicose rhetoric to continue, he says.
Renewed political violence in KwaZulu-Natal may be aimed partly at breaking up the new ANC-IFP couple.