JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A growing rift between the two leading Zulu figures in South Africa reached the breaking point yesterday when King Goodwill Zwelithini cut off contact with Inkatha Freedom Party President Mangosuthu Buthelezi -- ostensibly over the minor matter of who should be allowed to issue an invitation.
Mr. Buthelezi expressed indignation last month when President Nelson Mandela, Mr. Buthelezi's long-time political rival, said that he had accepted an invitation from the king to attend the Zulus' Shaka Day celebrations on Saturday. He said that any invitation to ceremonies honoring the 19th-century warrior king who founded the Zulu nation would have to come through him as the king's "traditional minister."
What actually angered Mr. Buthelezi was that in inviting Mr. Mandela, the king was demonstrating independence from Mr. Buthelezi.
Mr. Mandela, Mr. Buthelezi and King Zwelithini tried to sort out the matter at a Monday night meeting at the king's residence in Nongoma, 120 miles north of Durban.
With the shouts of Inkatha protesters in the background, Mr. Mandela announced that he would not be attending Shaka Day ceremonies in the coastal town of Stanger, as his safety could not be guaranteed.
Mr. Mandela said both the king and Mr. Buthelezi advised him not to attend.
The protesters, reportedly bused in by Inkatha, were clear evidence of the problem. They shouted "Down with Mandela," stoned his helicopter and damaged the king's residence.
Offended that his house had been violated, the king called together his royal advisers after the news conference, decided to cancel the Shaka Day celebrations and announced that he would have no further meetings with Mr. Buthelezi.
It appeared to mark a split in a relationship that has been troubled at least since the April election that gave South African nonwhites the vote.
Since then, advisers loyal to Mr. Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) have had the king's ear, clearly angering Mr. Buthelezi, who is the king's cousin and claims his minister's role by inheritance.
In several post-election speeches, Mr. Buthelezi has stated that Inkatha is more important than the king, saying that it was Inkatha's control of the KwaZulu homeland government that built up the monarchy, underwriting huge salaries and expenses.
In a recent speech, Mr. Buthelezi said that he had personally patched up the marriage between the king and his first wife, a revelation that seemed to be a veiled hint that unless the king got back in Inkatha's camp there would be more airing of royal dirty laundry.
But the king has continued his journey to the ANC camp undeterred. There are a number of theories as to why he has suddenly become more independent, responding to entreaties the ANC has been making for a year as it tried to split the king and Mr. Buthelezi.
One of the more convincing ones is that, after the election, the king replaced his bodyguards. For decades, they came from the Inkatha-controlled KwaZulu Police. After the election, the homelands ceased to exist. The king asked for, and received, security from the South African National Defense Force.
Another is that the last-minute deal worked out to get Mr. Buthelezi to take part in the elections freed the king from Inkatha control of his purse strings.
Seeking the political advantage of going into the election as savior of the Zulu monarchy, Mr. Buthelezi insisted on securing the status of the king in the post-election period. He also brokered a deal to transfer huge amounts of tribal land to the king's purview.
While designed to make the king grateful to Mr. Buthelezi, the new status enabled him to head for the election-winning ANC, instead of sticking with Inkatha, which won the KwaZulu/Natal province where the majority of the country's 7 million Zulus live but took only 11 percent of the national vote.
"I think Buthelezi created a monster, and now it's come back to haunt him," said one student of Zulu history and politics.
"A decade ago, no one had any respect for the Zulu monarchy. They haven't for a century. Then Buthelezi built up the king to extend his own political influence."
The relationship between the king and Mr. Buthelezi always has been problematic. As head of Inkatha and the KwaZulu government, Mr. Buthelezi humiliated the monarch in the late 1970s. They only came together again in the mid-1980s when the fights between Inkatha and the ANC were heating up.
What many fear is that those loyal to Inkatha and those loyal to the king will settle their differences the way Zulus have for centuries -- with violence. The battles could start this weekend as Inkatha, claiming that Shaka Day belongs to the Zulus and not the king, has vowed that it will go ahead with ceremonies.