IMBALI, South Africa -- The battle between South Africa's two major black political groups is a matter of life and death here.
Often it's death.
The township sits on the rolling green hills of the Edendale Valley, a politically volatile region of South Africa's most strife-torn province, Natal.
The execution this month of one of Imbali's most prominent leaders is a reflection of the brutality of the struggle between the African National Congress and the Zulu-led Inkatha Freedom party. S'kumbuzo Ngwenya, a 34-year-old ANC activist and community leader, was gunned down in nearby Pietermaritzburg, the city where most Imbali residents work.
His death was the latest in a wave of hit-style killings that has angered and disheartened activists on both sides.
"The future is very grim," said Senzo Mfayela, a member of Inkatha's Central Committee. "I used to be a bit optimistic, but after all these attempts one starts to wonder if there's any hope, if it's worthwhile to get involved."
More than 5,000 blacks have been killed in Natal since 1986 in factional fighting between supporters of the ANC and Inkatha. At one point, the confrontation drew large armies of people marching into bloody combat on what came to be known as Natal's killing fields. But lately, the killing has been targeted at individual ANC and Inkatha leaders, who are being wiped out at an alarming rate.
The day before Mr. Ngwenya was assassinated, an Inkatha leader was killed in another Natal township, Umlazi. A gunman walked into Winnington Sabelo's grocery store, bought a pack of cigarettes and shot the shopkeeper at close range before fleeing.
Mr. Sabelo had apparently earned a lot of enemies over the years and was widely described as an Inkatha "warlord" who led violent attacks on his political opponents. Police believe his killing was politically motivated because it fits the pattern of other recent slayings. Nothing was stolen from his shop.
"Whole tiers of leadership are being decimated," said John Aitchison, who heads a violence monitoring office at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. "This is devastating in terms of future politics and the delivery of good government. It leads to people without good leadership qualities coming to the fore."
Kim Hodgson, a researcher at the Inkatha Institute in Durban, said the organization had lost 180 of its local leaders since 1987: "We've challenged the ANC on this. Their list comes nowhere close to ours."
But Mr. Aitchison, whose office has done similar research over a four-year period, said the ANC had suffered greater losses than Inkatha in the Natal fighting. He also said that the slain ANC leaders were generally of a higher caliber than the Inkatha leaders, which made the loss even greater.
"Inkatha doesn't have a very modern leadership," he said, noting that its base is mostly rural and its appeal is to Zulu tribalism. He said the ANC's support was more in urban townships such as Imbali, where the residents are also Zulus but are better educated.
Many observers believe the recent killings are being orchestrated by forces who want to thwart local efforts to forge peace agreements between the warring sides. They say the latest slayings support this theory because the victims have been ANC and Inkatha leaders who were working to implement a national peace accord signed by the two organizations in late November 1990.
Mr. Ngwenya, the local ANC leader, served on a peace committee in war-torn Imbali. He was gunned down Feb. 8 as he entered his car outside a Pietermaritzburg restaurant, where he had been discussing the violence problem with a visiting delegation of 15 Americans.
"He left early because he said it wasn't safe to be out late," said Kent Wong, a Los Angeles lawyer who was part of the delegation. He said the Americans were shocked by this vivid example of the problem they had come to learn about.
Mr. Ngwenya had been a moving force behind efforts to bring peace to Imbali and rebuild the 200 homes destroyed in earlier fighting. A social worker for the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness, he had a long history as an anti-apartheid activist, first with the United Democratic Front and later with the ANC.
"We have lost a leader here, someone who has never killed anybody," said Miriam Mkize, who lives near Mr. Ngwenya's home, a four-room cinder block house with bullet holes on the outside walls from an earlier attack.
"We were trying to create peace in this Imbali. And this is the man who was doing it," she said. "But they don't want to see peace. They want us to destroy each other."
Imbali is one of several black townships that surround Pietermaritzburg, a pleasant city where blacks, whites and Indians seem to mix easily. A 10-minute drive from the city, its neat cinder block houses are built close together on the hilly countryside of Edendale Valley. Residents say the area is largely an ANC stronghold, but with small pockets of Inkatha supporters.
Inkatha leaders believe they are being targeted by ANC hit squads seeking to diminish Inkatha as a political rival. But ANC leaders see a more sinister plot. They believe government security forces are cooperating with Inkatha in an orchestrated campaign to hurt the ANC and weaken it as a negotiating partner in the national talks on a new constitution.
"The hit squads are funded and trained by the South African Defense Force and the South African Police," said Reggie Hadebe, an ANC leader. "It is very difficult today to separate Inkatha from the SADF."
He said the government is "trying to weaken the ANC's capacity" to frustrate plans for a "non-racial democratic order."
The ANC's charges of a police campaign, aided by Inkatha, have been supported by several recent cases. Early this month, an ANC activist, Londi Ntombela, was found dead after police officers came to his home and took him away for questioning.
His family says they found him at a mortuary with his eyes gouged and his tongue cut out. A police spokesman said the 19-year-old was arrested on murder and assault charges and was shot while trying to escape. But the spokesman said he could not comment on the reports of mutilation.
Twelve policemen are currently on trial in Pietermaritzburg on murder charges. Most of the victims were either ANC members or non-partisans who had somehow run afoul of Inkatha officials in their area. In one case, according to testimony at the trial, 11 people at a funeral vigil were mowed down on orders from a white police captain who told his subordinates that the mourners were "terrorists." The victims lived in an area where the residents association had been involved in a dispute with Inkatha supporters.