JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The sight once struck fear into the heart of the British Empire -- thousands of Zulus, dressed in skins and feathers, carrying spears and shields, dancing, chanting, marching in unison.
Their ancestors dealt the British a rare defeat on the field in the bloody advance of colonialism more than a century ago.
Twice in recent weeks some 50,000 Zulus -- most clad and armed in the traditional fashion -- have gathered at the calling of their king, 45-year-old Goodwill Zwelithini. The views of many who come to these "imbizos" now strike fear into the hearts of those who wish for a democratic, multiethnic, united South Africa -- which is supposed to be realized in next year's first free elections.
"The Zulus do not have the problem of having to vote because we have the king," said Aaron Mtetwa, 36, attending a recent imbizo near Johannesburg. He lives in a hostel in the nearby black township of Vosloorus, but, like most Zulus, still claims a village in the traditional Zulu land of Natal as his home.
Mr. Mtetwa dismissed the African National Congress, the party led by Nelson Mandela that most think will win next year's election, as a latecomer to the fight against white domination in South Africa.
"The Zulu kingdom was there years and years before the ANC," he said. "We had war with the white people. We won the battle against the British. If anybody in the ANC tries to kill the KwaZulu nation, we will fight against them like we did the British."
"Mandela? Who is he?" demanded Jackson Shezi, a 35-year-old steel worker who also lives in a the Vosloorus hostel. "We have just heard of him; we have had our king forever."
Some see the Zulus as an incurably warlike tribe whose members, especially the migrant laborers living in hostels around the townships, are responsible for much of the violence endangering the prospects for April's elections.
But others see them as one of the justifiably proudest tribes of African natives who have managed to preserve their cultural identity during more than a century of white domination.
There are about 7 million Zulus in South Africa, a country of almost 40 million. They make up the largest single ethnic group in the country.
Zulus inevitably will play a part in the country's political future, but determining what role is difficult.
Clearly, many Zulus do see themselves as members of one of South Africa's many ethnic groups that will blend into a new nation. But others consider themselves representatives of an ancient and honorable kingdom whose roots are deeper in the soils of southern Africa than those of any of the states planted by Europeans, and whose tree, barren during the years it was stunted by colonialism and apartheid, is once again ready to bear fruit.
"Certainly the kingdom is still powerful for many Zulus," said Robert Thornton, chairman of the anthropology department at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand. "It is difficult to say how powerful until people start marking ballots in an election."
Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of the Inkatha Freedom Party, is usually thought of as the political leader of the Zulus. But at the imbizos, large parts of the crowd left while Mr. Buthelezi was speaking because they had already heard the man they had come to see, King Goodwill.
Affection for the king does not bother the ANC, but the idea of the Zulu kingdom playing an active political role does.
"To us, the kingdom is really a museum relic," said Mtutuzeli Matshobe of the ANC's Department of Arts and Culture. "We would like it if Zulus felt about their king the way the British do about their queen, as someone to be revered and honored but with no real political power."
The ANC contends that, despite the efforts of Inkatha, the majority of Zulus support their modern political view of South Africa. To demonstrate that, the ANC is planning to hold its own huge Zulu rally in Durban, the capital of Natal, next month.
The ANC also would like the king to sit down and talk with Mr. Mandela. But that hasn't happened, most think, because Mr. Buthelezi will not allow it. As long as the king, who is supposed to be above politics, appears to be supporting Inkatha's position, including its refusal to take part in negotiations on the future of South Africa, a large part of Mr. Buthelezi's Zulu base is secure.
Walking a tightrope
Mr. Buthelezi is one of many South African politicians walking a tightrope between the realities of modern politics and the ancient calls of tribal loyalties.
On the one hand, he presents himself as a leader in the movement for a federal state in which South Africa would consist of strong regions, some ethnically based, united by a weak central government. In this role, he has garnered numerous white political allies.
On the other hand, Mr. Buthelezi calls upon the historical pride of the Zulu tribe to shore up his support among his core group.
This was evident when Mr. Buthelezi addressed the Johannesburg imbizo in a soccer stadium near the black township of Soweto.
"When we demand our rights to self-determination, and the right to govern our own lives at the regional level, we are overruled," Mr. Buthelezi said of the negotiations among all parties in South Africa. "Is this supposed to mean that the Zulu nation is so insignificant that we can be silenced by the ANC and its allies? I say no. We will never allow our people to be subjected to another bloody dictatorship."
The other imbizo was in Durban. Natal is the location of KwaZulu, the Zulu homeland set up by the white apartheid government to deny Zulus South African citizenship. In addition to being head of Inkatha, Mr. Buthelezi is also the chief minister of KwaZulu and prime minister for the king.
United in opposing ANC
King Goodwill has been king since 1971. Though he bitterly feuded with Mr. Buthelezi during the first decade of his reign, they united during the 1980s in opposition to the ANC and other political groups that attacked the sovereignty of KwaZulu.
The rural Zulus who live in KwaZulu are the most likely to hew to the old traditions, and to be underrepresented in polls that show the ANC more popular among Zulus than Inkatha. As the Zulu leader during the 1980s, Mr. Buthelezi spoke out against apartheid and refused to make the homeland an independent state, as the South African government wanted.
But he also condemned the ANC, opposed economic sanctions and reportedly took under-the-table money from the government. Some see his joining with right-wing whites at the negotiations in support of regional autonomy as a continuation of those old alliances.
The role that KwaZulu plays in Mr. Buthelezi's rhetoric is ambiguous. Despite its apartheid origins, at times he speaks of it as interchangeable with the Zulu kingdom, saying that threats against its independence are threats against the Zulus.
He has a personal stake in the outcome of events, for as chief minister of KwaZulu, Mr. Buthelezi has considerable power and patronage, which could be diminished or eliminated in the new political arrangement.
But he has the support of King Goodwill, who demands independence.
"I, as your king, have the responsibility of making sure the Zulu people are aware of the dangers they have to face," the 45-year-old monarch, dressed in a stylish double-breasted suit, said at one imbizo. "This is not a question of party politics. This is a matter which goes into the marrow in our very bones, as Zulu-speaking South Africans, and as patriots who have resisted many white efforts to emasculate the Zulu nation."
Then he raised the rallying memory for Zulu tribesmen, Isandhlwana, the 1879 battle when the Zulus defeated the British, one of the few defeats of a European colonial army.
Though they were soon subdued by British troops, that victory remains perhaps the proudest moment in Zulu history, which dates to 1819, when the Zulu kingdom was unified by a brilliant, ruthless military ruler named Shaka. Isandhlwana still resonates throughout Africa.
"It is one reason that the Zulus are so important as a symbolic presence," Dr. Thornton said. "The Zulu kingdom stands with Ethiopia as a symbol of successful resistance to European imperialism in Africa. It makes it perhaps the best-known tribe in Africa. Ask someone in the United States to name an African tribe and they would probably say Zulu.
"Everybody wants to capitalize on that," he said. "Even the ANC has the Zulu symbols of the spear and shield in its logo."