MBOYI, South Africa -- Bernard Mkhize buried three sons last weekend in the rich red soil of Table Mountain, a flat-topped hill that looks down on this land of immense beauty and intense pain.
The boys were murdered on their way to school March 2, along with three of their young friends, child victims of the ugly war that has scarred the emerald-colored hills of Natal since 1986.
Six graves were dug near the Mkhize homestead, one of dozens on the hillside, as women wept and men paraded with sticks and spears, the traditional weapons carried by most rural men of the Zulu tribe.
Outside the Mkhize house, a few men sat with spears and World War II rifles, drinking a milky homemade beer.
Some of the men spoke of revenge, a major ingredient in the violence, which threatens South Africa's political future. Already, there have been two other massacres since the Mkhize murders, both in nearby communities, and police say at least one might have been in retaliation for the children's murder.
A total of 20 people were killed in the three incidents, according to police. Almost 8,000 have been killed in Natal since the fighting began.
"We stand among terrible heartbreak and the anger that is produced by the kind of inhumanity that targets for extinction children on their way to school," said Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a Zulu chief and leader of one of South Africa's main black political groups, the Inkatha Freedom Party.
"What kind of people are these who can just blow out the brains of young children with AK-47 rifles for political reasons?" Mr. Buthelezi asked the mourners, about 2,000 men and women who came by bus from other Inkatha strongholds in the strife-torn midlands of Natal Province.
"Are we still human beings or animals? Must we black people go on killing fellow blacks for political reasons? Must we Zulus continue killing other Zulus to fulfill political agendas?"
Three men from Inkatha's powerful rival, the African National Congress (ANC), were arrested and charged with killing the children. They are accused of shooting them at close range with machine guns.
Mr. Mkhize, 43, a thin man who chain smokes, is the local Inkatha leader. He was allegedly targeted on previous occasions by ANC supporters who had been chased from their hilltop homes and forced to live in refugee camps, leaving Mboyi an all-Inkatha enclave and a target of simmering hatred.
Some neighbors speculated that the children were killed because the attackers couldn't get at Mr. Mkhize. There have been two other gruesome attacks on children in the past year, including one in which the children of a well-known Inkatha leader were mowed down in an ambush.
"It's part of a pattern where you can't get at the parents but you want to make a brutal statement," said David Willers, editor of the Natal Witness, a newspaper published in the provincial capital, Pietermaritzburg.
ANC leader Nelson Mandela said he was shocked by the recent killings and that his organization would expel the murderers of children.
Mr. Mandela said he wanted to attend the funeral and express his condolences to the family, but police warned him off, saying he would not be safe.
Natal is the site of the most bitter and longest-running battle between the ANC and Inkatha, which was formed as a Zulu cultural movement in 1973. It was Inkatha territory until an ANC affiliate, the United Democratic Front, began organizing Zulus and others in the province in the mid-1980s when the ANC was still officially banned by the government.
For the ANC, which was legalized in 1990, the Natal war is part of a fight across the country for supporters who can propel the organization to victory in national elections, the first in history in which blacks will vote. But for Mr. Buthelezi, it is a fight for survival. Without Natal, where the majority of Zulus live, he is nothing politically, and his Inkatha movement would not even register its presence on the political scale.
Mr. Buthelezi has proposed that a nearly autonomous region be created for Natal and surrounding Zulu areas, where they would live beyond the control of an ANC-dominated federal government. The ANC opposes this.
The result of the turf war has been a climate which is so charged with hate, anger and vengefulness that any local dispute or small offense can set off an explosion of violence.
"It isn't a straightforward ANC-IFP thing. It's clouded by a lot of things," said Mr. Willers of the Natal Witness. "It's like a lot of civil wars that start with the theft of a chicken," he said, explaining that a seven-day battle in nearby Edendale Valley started exactly that way.
The violence has resulted in the devastation of communities and the dislocation of people across Natal. The impact on future elections could also be devastating, with the prospect of violence and intimidation scaring many away from the polls.
The ANC frequently complains that it cannot hold membership drives or reach out to people in rural areas controlled by Inkatha. Inkatha complains that the ANC intimidates workers in the cities. Each party has been accused of trying to eliminate the other by wiping out large numbers of its followers.
Most analysts doubt that it is possible to have a fair election in this climate. But some say a massive military presence could make it possible for people to travel safely to the polls next year, when an election is to be held to replace the white minority regime with a democratic government that inevitably will be dominated by blacks.
If the ANC wins the national elections, as anticipated from polls and other signs of its popularity, it will face the task of appointing a regional government in an area where much of the population considers it the enemy. Given the level of brutality preceding the elections, the task will be even harder than the U.S. government's job of taming the Confederacy after the South lost the U.S. Civil War.
Most Inkatha activists dread the thought of an ANC victory and life under "President Mandela," as the ANC activists already are calling him publicly in a show of confidence.
"If that guy takes over, we'll all die," said Mr. Mkhize.