Zulu tribalism may club South African democracy


I sat in the shade of a green 1960 Buick, idly wondering how it had made its way from Detroit to Umlazi, South Africa, as the sun rose high in the sky and the Zulu warriors kept dancing.

They had been dancing since dawn. They shuffled forward and back, stamping their feet against the matted grass, beating their short spears against their hide shields, chanting in low, haunting voices.

Some were dressed in skins and furs and woven grass. Others wore denim work pants and cotton shirts. There was no conflict between the two modes of dress. They were Zulu. And to the Zulu, yesterday, today and tomorrow were one.

A woman came and told me that Chief Buthelezi would see me now. I thanked her and she slipped her hand into mine, giving me a power handshake and saying, "Amandla Awetu." Power to the People.

Though it was 1978, the '60s were just coming to South Africa.

Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a Zulu chief and leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, was, with Nelson Mandela in prison, the most powerful black person in South Africa.

He sat under a canopy behind a long, white-clothed table that bore warm and unopened bottles of American soft drinks.

Even back then he was playing a dangerous game.

He was both receiving support from the white power structure, which preferred him to Mandela, and also challenging it by insisting on a black-ruled South Africa.

"I come from a warrior people," he told me. "It is not long ago that we conquered the white man. The white man must share power. We must sit down and determine the future where all races in South Africa share power."

Now that day is at hand. On April 26-28, South Africa will hold its first all-race election.

But Buthelezi wants no part of it.

Americans used to think they understood South Africa: The white government was racist and oppressive, and the black population was united against it.

Then Nelson Mandela, now president of the African National Congress (ANC), was released from prison in 1990 and he and F. W. de Klerk, president of South Africa, developed a plan to create a power- sharing government this year and majority rule in 1999. (Blacks make up about 75 percent of the population of South Africa and whites about 14 percent. Asians and people of mixed race make up the rest.)

This seemed to be what black people had been waiting for.

So, what were we to make of the TV pictures last week of 40,000 Zulu warriors marching amid the glass and steel skyscrapers of downtown Johannesburg?

And what were we to make of the carnage that followed when the Zulus marched passed ANC headquarters and shots rang out?

When the chaos was over, 53 people were dead, most of them Zulus. Since then, there have been scores of people killed in reprisal.

What was this? It was what has been talked about little in the Western press: tribalism.

Nelson Mandela doesn't like to talk about it at all -- he envisions a South Africa that moves beyond race -- while Buthelezi, now chief minister of the "homeland" of KwaZulu, talks about little else.

There are about 7 million Zulus in South Africa, making them the nation's largest ethnic group. Most of them are located in KwaZulu, in Natal province, on the Indian Ocean.

They have a fierce history and a fierce tribal pride. But in the new South Africa, the South Africa of Mandela and the ANC, tribalism has no real role.

The ANC and the Zulus' Inkatha Freedom Party have been fighting for the last 10 years with a death toll, some say, that totals 20,000.

After the April elections, Mandela almost certainly will be elected president, de Klerk will serve as vice president, KwaZulu will disappear and Buthelezi fears he will have no future.

So he opposes the elections, while Mandela and de Klerk insist that they must take place.

Buthelezi is supposed to attend a summit today with de Klerk and Mandela to see if elections can take place in Natal with Zulu cooperation and participation.

Buthelezi says the violence we see now is the beginning "of a final struggle to the finish between the ANC and the Zulu nation."

Mandela says the violence will not deter him or South Africa's future. "We will not," he says, "postpone our freedom."

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