NONGOMA, SOUTH AFRICA — NONGOMA, South Africa -- It was a day of glory revisited.
The battlefields of past Zulu wars stretched far into the distance between the bronze-colored hills of Zululand, interrupted by an occasional huddle of grass-topped huts.
From the direction of the royal residence, home of King Goodwill Zwelithini, came a regiment of stern-faced warriors dressed in animal skins and strips of beads.
The warriors marched swiftly into an open field in a fierce display of militancy, brandishing spears, sticks and shields of leather and wood. They danced and charged each other in mock combat, sending swirls of dust across the field.
This was the wedding of King Zwelithini, descendant of the famed warrior-king Shaka Zulu and titular ruler of the 6-million-strong Zulu tribe. The ceremony Saturday was the king's fifth marriage and his most controversial. His new bride is from the land of the Xhosas, Nelson Mandela's group, arch-rivals to the Zulus from this spectacular region in South Africa's eastern highlands.
Nompumelelo Mchiza, 19, in a white wedding gown and veil, sat next to the 43-year-old king on a special wooden platform.
To their left, sat the king's first, second and third wives. The most recent, the fourth, was absent, according to Zulu tradition.
"Some people conquer with AK-47s. You conquer with love," shouted the royal praise-giver, whose job was to rattle off an effusive string of praises of the king.
The crowd chanted "iNdlovu, iNdlovu" (pronounced "ee-end-LOOV-oo"). In Zulu, it means "elephant, elephant," a high praise.
"All the Zulu kings are elephants. All big, strong and dangerous animals," explained Joseph Dladla, organizer of cultural affairs in KwaZulu, the area officially designated by South Africa as the Zulu homeland. "We call them elephant, lion and leopard," he said, an old tradition intended to reflect the strength of the king of the Zulus, once the most powerful tribe in southern Africa.
But this is a new era and a changing country, where Mr. Mandela is the lion among black politicians and his organization, the African National Congress, the predominant black political group.
In the new government being forged in a series of difficult negotiations with the white government, the ANC is expected to play the major role. The role of the "Zulu nation," as they call themselves, is undefined but clearly secondary.
The ANC is a broad-based, non-tribal organization, but many Zulus see it as a Xhosa group because most of its top leaders are members of Mr. Mandela's ethnic group. Deep resentment between the two groups often leads to bloodshed.
Against this backdrop, the Zulu king's choice of a Xhosa bride was a potential source of Zulu discontent, which the royal family sought to avoid by denying that she was a Xhosa at all. The family also denied suggestions in newspapers that the marriage was a political union -- such as the king's previous marriage to a Swazi princess -- aimed at soothing tensions between two ethnic groups.
"The big song about the king marrying a Xhosa bride is the biggest nonsense that we have read in the media for a long time," said Mangosuthu Buthelezi, president of Inkatha and the king's uncle.
"There is nothing that bars our king or any of us in KwaZulu from marrying from other African cultur al groups. There is nothing that bars the king from marrying a beautiful Xhosa girl if he so chooses to do one day. But this is not yet such a marriage."
Mr. Buthelezi said the bride was a member of the small Bhaca tribe that originates in the area conquered by Shaka Zulu in the early 1800s. Most of the Bhacas fled to the Xhosa area south of here to avoid being conquered by Shaka, but Mr. Buthelezi claimed them as Zulus in the tradition of his great ancestor.
His statement was rejected as "not a well-reasoned argument" by Brig. Oupa Gqozo, military leader of the Xhosa homeland known as the Ciskei.
"We are all Xhosas," the brigadier said of the tribes who came together more than a century ago in the Xhosa regions. The groups all speak the Xhosa language.
It was a strange dispute but one that explained how black tribal differences add to the complicated mix of problems that South Africa must sort out before it achieves a peaceful, democratic society.
In fact, the bride's family is from the Xhosa homeland known as the Transkei but she grew up in Zululand, where her father worked for the KwaZulu department of education. Here, she learned traditional Zulu dances, such as the "reed dance" where maidens dance bare-breasted in reed skirts for the men of the tribe. King Zwelithini chose her at the annual reed dance last year.
At their wedding, she danced for him again after both bride and groom shed their Western clothing for traditional outfits of leopard skins and feathers.
First, the new queen chased her husband in public, carrying a sharpened knife pointed upward, in a dance that symbolized her status as a virgin. Then she danced alongside his daughters. She remained covered, they weren't.
Then came the feast, with 16 cows from the king's ranch. The king also gave the bride's parents 21 cows as the traditional bride price known as "lobola."
It was a day straight out of the history books, full of the traditions from Shaka's time and before, traditions embraced by traditional Zulus in the face of an increasingly modern South Africa.