DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA — DURBAN, South Africa -- In the turbulent world of South African politics, Mangosuthu Buthelezi is making his last stand, and he is summoning his tribe's ancient warrior tradition to the task.
Chief Buthelezi, this country's most prominent Zulu leader, is relying on the ethnic pride of the nation's Zulus to wage a life-and-death struggle with the African National Congress, which has displaced the Zulu kingdom as the most formidable black force in South Africa.
Inkatha is considered a conservative black organization, which promotes free enterprise, while the ANC has a large number of communists in its ranks. For years, right-wing white South Africans and Americans heaped praise on Mr. Buthelezi, who remained in the country while the African National Congress was banned and exiled. He accepted the government-appointed post top minister of the black homeland of KwaZulu during the apartheid years. ANC activists call him a puppet of the white regime.
In opinion polls conducted since the government's ban of the ANC was lifted in 1990, he has always run a poor third, after Nelson Mandela and President F. W. de Klerk.
Yet, Mr. de Klerk said as recently as last week that there can be "no comprehensive solution" to South Africa's future without Mr. Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party.
Mr. Buthelezi puts it more forcefully. "I serve notice that the Inkatha Freedom Party is a national political force and that the KwaZulu government is an historic reality that can only be ignored at the peril of the negotiations process," he said in a
Detractors say the implications of such statements are not subtle and that the Zulu leader has gone to sinister lengths to keep a place. They say he uses violence, directed against ANC supporters, to gain recognition as the South African government turns more of its attention to negotiating with the ANC.
"As Mangosuthu Buthelezi becomes increasingly isolated, those who know him warn that he is a dangerous man to put in a corner," said Anton Harbor, editor of the liberal Weekly Mail newspaper.
Mary de Haas, a violence monitor at the University of Natal, said Inkatha is the only party making political gains from the violence.
"There is no way the ANC is gaining. Inkatha is gaining," she said in an interview, explaining that the violence is scaring some people away from the ANC.
Chief Buthelezi's rivals maintain that he uses his mostly rural, uneducated followers, who rejoice in the tribe's warrior traditions, to wreak havoc on communities that oppose Inkatha and support the ANC.
Mr. Mandela and his aides have contended repeatedly that Inkatha "impis," or regiments, have attacked ANC strongholds, such as black townships and squatter camps, and slaughtered innocent residents. The ANC also alleges South African police complicity in the violence.
In one of the worst such incidents, more than 40 people were brutally killed in a nightlong rampage through the little township of Boipatong last June. Almost 100 men were arrested on murder charges, all Zulus who live in a migrant-workers hostel controlled by Inkatha.
Zulu vs. Zulu
"What they can't win at the negotiating table or in elections, they will try to win through violence," one ANC supporter said.
The region in the country most beset by violence since 1985 has been Natal Province in the east, where KwaZulu is located and where the battle between Inkatha and ANC supporters began.
But of the 12,000 blacks who have died in political fighting since then, most have been victims of a bloody Zulu-against-Zulu conflict in the rivalry between Chief Buthelezi's supporters and others of the tribe of 7 million who support the ANC.
The war has displaced hundreds of thousands, flattened entire neighborhoods and divided Zulu families.
"There is still an ongoing tug of war between the two parties," said Oscar Dhlomo, Mr. Buthelezi's former right-hand man but for the past two years head of a respected institute that promotes multiparty democracy. "In most areas, it was easy for the ANC to establish its superiority."
Chief Buthelezi consistently denies that he promotes violence. But he does not discourage the terrifying Zulu mystique.
Of all the tribes in Africa, none has evoked more fear and fascination than the Zulu "warrior nation." Mr. Buthelezi constantly reminds South Africans of that history.
Throughout the 19th century, the thought of Zulus struck fear in the hearts of lesser black tribes, many of whom fled in the face of Zulu warriors decked out with ostrich plume headdresses and massive shields.
In one shining episode in their history, they dealt the British in 1879 the most shocking defeats of their colonial wars in Africa. The British called them "man-slaying gladiators," unafraid of death.
There are an estimated 7 million Zulus in South Africa, the largest tribe in the country. Mr. Buthelezi claims to speak for 2 million of them, card-carrying members of Inkatha. Some say the FTC figure is inflated, and that his real significance is not in the numbers he commands but in their capacity for violence.
Inkatha's base support comes from tribal Zulus who live in the hilly countryside of KwaZulu (place of the Zulus), where they still observe tribal customs that make them subservient to an "induna," or chief. It has limited appeal to educated, urban Zulus who live in black satellite communities such as the massive Soweto township outside Johannesburg.
"I'm a full-fledged Zulu, and I don't support him," said Kwenza Mlaba, a lawyer in this east coast city and an ardent supporter of the ANC.
Inkatha's reliance on the past has been a key part of the program since it was founded in 1973 as a cultural movement bent on strengthening tribal traditions and reviving the legends of Zulu greatness. Some critics say Inkatha has taken its followers backward, damaging the liberation struggle, when most black South Africans were looking to a modern, democratic future.
Road to Ulundi
Thousands of Zulus still dress up in leopard skins and ostrich feathers and carry cowhide shields and sharpened spears to attend a variety of Zulu cultural events sponsored throughout the year by Inkatha, such as the Shaka Day ceremony held outside Durban last month to honor the founder of the Zulu nation.
Legendary for his brilliance and butchery in battle, Shaka conquered and absorbed a string of less powerful clans to build a mighty warrior nation in the early 19th century.
In 1879, his nephew, Cetshwayo, who was then king, led the Zulus to their greatest victory. An army of more than 20,000 Zulus moved against British colonial troops who were determined to subjugate the powerful black kingdom and remove it as a threat to the neighboring British settlement of Natal.
The British eventually won, but only after they had been humiliated, bludgeoned and shocked in a series of battles against courageous Zulu warriors, beginning with the Battle of Isandlwana on Jan. 22, 1879.
KwaZulu, the land over which the apartheid government appointed Mr. Buthelezi to rule, is his last stronghold. Even there, he is threatened by the ANC and allied organizations.
But the specter of bloodshed is still a deterrent.
Last month, the ANC announced that it would march on Ulundi, " theZulu capital, to protest what it called the lack of free political activity in the Zulu homeland, which has a one-party government led by Mr. Buthelezi. The announcement came after an ill-fated march on Ciskei, in which 28 ANC supporters were gunned down by troops of that homeland government.
The plans to march on Ulundi infuriated the Zulu leader.
He said there would be civil war. He said it would be an invasion. It would be "the greatest threat to the Zulu people since the British army invaded Zululand more than a century ago," he said, ignoring the fact that the regional promoters of the march were also Zulus.
His words, reaching back to the Zulus' greatest military victory, were nothing less than a call to war for his rural, militant following steeped in the history of Shaka and Cetshwayo. The British pummeling in 1879 happened on the road to Ulundi.
The ANC has not announced a date for the march.