NQUTU, South Africa -- The nine young men gathered around the crude wooden soccer goal in the midst of a vast field hardly seemed imposing, but their presence symbolized a powerful effort by the African National Congress (ANC) to move into one of the last strongholds of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
They were gathered for what was essentially a neighborhood political rally in this rural area of inland northern Natal, the region that has been one of the bloodiest and most contested areas in South Africa.
Only a few months ago, such a public display in this area would have been unthinkable. Natal is the traditional home of the Zulus, the tribe that makes up Inkatha's political base.
Inkatha controls the government of KwaZulu, the Zulu homeland that is dotted around Natal, including this area. Inkatha has jealously defended its turf, calling the ANC the latest in a series of invaders who have sought to dominate the Zulu nation.
And it is a violent rivalry.
The Inkatha supporters defend this land with guns and spears and other weapons; the ANC supporters fight back in kind, for intimidation is a stock in trade of South African politics. The Inkatha-ANC battles are at times purely political, at times traditional Zulu territorial fights, at times inter-clan disputes, often some sort of combination of all three.
From mid-1990, after the ban of the ANC was lifted, to mid-1993, the Human Rights Commission reports that 3,653 people died in political violence in Natal, accounting for almost 40 percent of the deaths from such violence in the country, though the area has less than 25 percent of the country's population. Almost all of that came in ANC-Inkatha fights.
Most of the occupants of the Zulu-and-Inkatha-dominated hostels in black townships near Johannesburg -- seen as the source of many of the conflicts in those areas -- come from Natal. Sometimes fights that begin in Natal are settled in the townships. Sometimes the violence travels the other way.
No matter what the opposition, the ANC, with its decades of battle against apartheid, has an undeniable appeal even to Zulus who hear the song of tribal loyalty often sung by Inkatha's leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
Indeed, Mr. Buthelezi's position as head of the KwaZulu government, while it gives him a base of political power, may actually be working to his disadvantage in the long run. Polls show most blacks consider the April 27 election to be one of liberation, a sort of supercharged throw-the-bums-out vote.
That makes Inkatha's incumbency in KwaZulu a liability. It is perceived as one of the bums, responsible for the rutted roads fTC and lack of services that are the fact of life in KwaZulu.
The polls chronicle the ANC's steady progress, as it first dominated the urban townships around coastal Durban, then pushed out from the central city of Pietermaritzburg into surrounding villages. The latest research gives the ANC 49 percent of the vote in Natal to Inkatha's 34 percent.
This rural, inland part of northern Natal is the last battleground before the vote. This is Big Sky country, where cumulus clouds tower above distant horizons, the broad expanse of endless fields -- green now that the rains have come, dotted with the brown of cattle -- sweeping up to flat-topped mountains.
It is also bloody country, South Africa's equivalent of the land between Washington and Richmond during the Civil War. This is where invading armies moving up from the coast met the inland settlers.
Within a few miles of Nqutu, first the Boers met the Zulus at Blood River in December 1838, then the British fought the Zulus in January 1879, losing at Isandhlwana, winning at Rorke's Drift.
All around are battlefields and besieged cities from the turn-of-the-century war between the British and the Afrikaners who had then settled this land and declared their independence.
"Viva, ANC, viva!" James Mtetwa calls out to the nine men as he drives up to the soccer goal. "Viva," they call back.
Mr. Mtetwa, a minister and businessman who is a top official in the local ANC organization, had just driven down a rutted, bumpy dirt track to address the rally.
"They give the people roads like this and they expect them to vote for them," he said of Inkatha and its KwaZulu government.
A few of the young men got into a pickup with one of the homemade ANC banners and headed off on a drive through this rural settlement, letting the people know that the unknown cars that appeared did not carry Inkatha impis -- the Zulu term for warriors -- but ANC leaders, that it is safe to come to the rally.
It is a message that needs to be delivered. In November, the ANC planned to announce its presence in Nqutu with a major rally, complete with top-name speakers such as Winnie Mandela. Hearing of violence planned by Inkatha, and unable to secure proper security, the ANC called off the rally.
Nevertheless, that night seven gunmen with AK-47s invaded the kraal -- a group of buildings -- of a local chief, Molefe, who supports the ANC. Twelve were killed and several others, including the chief, were wounded. In the ensuing weeks, 16 local Inkatha members have been killed, presumably in retaliation.
Complicating the picture is the fact that Chief Molefe is not a Zulu, but a Sotho. His family was given this land because the Sotho backed the British at Isandhlwana.
That battle -- one of the few defeats of gun-equipped colonial British by spear-toting indigenous people -- is seen by many Zulus as the defining moment of their nation's history. But to Mr. Mtetwa, it just poisons the political waters.
"Because of Isandhlwana, the people of this area think they have the blood of warriors in their veins and that they can turn around politics in South Africa," he said.
Though the call to Zulu roots is a siren song to many, Mr. Mtetwa said it has no appeal to him.
"I am a Nguni," he said, a term referring to several of the major tribes of South Africa, including the Zulus and Xhosas, often considered traditional rivals. He explained that it was the British, learning that the top chiefs called themselves Zulu, who gave the name to the entire tribe.
In this atmosphere, the ANC has decided to shy away from big rallies and instead hold small ones at various local settlements, building confidence and support as they meet on fields where grass-roots politics takes on a literal meaning.
As the singing and chanting at this rally began, people began appearing from their huts and walking across the field, building the crowd over the next two hours. Maybe 60 were finally in the circle singing and doing the toyi-toyi, a hopping dance popular at political rallies.
By the time the speeches began, under the watchful eye of a bodyguard standing atop a pickup with an illegal AK-47, more than 100 were gathered beneath the weathered goal. They heard a local organizer, Molefe Khanye, tell them that they should be proud to be meeting out in the open, in broad daylight, not sneaking around at night as they did before.
"I cannot run away," Mr. Khanye said, claiming that Inkatha members had threatened to kill him if he went ahead with this rally. "I dedicate myself to go forward for the struggle."
Mr. Mtetwa told them that now was not the time to avenge the 12 deaths, that they should not do anything to disrupt the April 27 election, that more violence will just make people afraid to go to the polls.
A few miles away, and a few hours later, the chief of an Inkatha area seemed unimpressed.
"Inkatha is most popular here," said Chief T. J. Ngoboj, standing in front of his old compact car, a handgun in a holster on his hip. He claimed that all political groups are free to work in his area, but he made clear his preference.
"I don't like it when ANC comes in," he said. "They always cause trouble. Too much violence."