STANGER, South Africa -- What Nelson Mandela once envisioned as a day of national reconciliation instead became a symbol of dangerous divisions yesterday among this country's 7 million Zulus.
Thousands of Zulus crowded into this small town amid the sugar cane plantations of Natal, gathering at the grave of Shaka, the 19th-century warrior who founded the Zulu nation.
They came even though their king, Goodwill Zwelithini, had asked them not to. They came because Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of the Inkatha Freedom Party, said that they should.
And they greeted Mr. Buthelezi with a raucous display of militaristic Zulu dancing and chanting even as King Goodwill attended a prayer service near his palace 150 miles away.
The bellicose Mr. Buthelezi seemed closer to the spirit of Shaka than the quiet King Goodwill, though it is still not clear who is winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the country's largest ethnic group.
Inkatha supporters said that yesterday's turnout in Stanger was the largest ever for a Shaka Day celebration, but the king's supporters were claiming that it was one of the smallest ever.
With the crowd spilling out of the small park that contains Shaka's grave into the streets of the small town, it was impossible to get an accurate grasp on their numbers.
The split between Mr. Buthelezi and King Goodwill raised the possibility of the Zulus once again split into violent struggles. Some 10,000 died in a decade of battles between supporters of Inkatha and the African National Congress, fighting that has died down since the elections in April.
Last week, King Goodwill tried to cancel the traditional Shaka Day celebrations, replacing them with prayer services. His stance broke relations with Mr. Buthelezi, his so-called traditional prime minister.
Though Mr. Buthelezi often appeared with the popular king in the months leading up to South Africa's election, he began feuding with him in the last several weeks after King Goodwill invited President Mandela to the Shaka Day festivities.
Mr. Buthelezi said that the invitation violated protocol -- that it should have come through his office.
Inkatha controlled the KwaZulu homeland's government and thus the king's salary and perks, as well as his bodyguards.
Now that is no longer the case, and the king is exercising his independence.
At a meeting on Tuesday at the king's palace in Nongoma, King Goodwill, Mr. Mandela and Mr. Buthelezi all agreed that Mr. Mandela should not come to Stanger, because his safety could not be guaranteed.
Inkatha demonstrators stoned the president's helicopter and damaged the royal residence, spurring the king's effort to stop the Shaka Day celebration.
Mr. Mandela said later that he had hoped his attendance would signal that Shaka Day was a holiday that all South Africans could celebrate but that he realized it was too soon to free this commemoration from its ethnic roots.
The king was often the object of ridicule and laughter from the thousands of Zulus gathered at the monument that marks Shaka's grave. Most were dressed in leopard furs, or some reasonable imitation, and carried spears and shields, chanting and singing traditional songs.
From the beginning reading of a biblical passage from Nehemiah about guarding the unfinished walls of Jerusalem from intruders, the crowd heard constant references to the Zulu schism.
In his hourlong speech, Mr. Buthelezi said that his actions were aimed at defending the concept of a constitutional monarchy in the KwaZulu/Natal province, that the king's recent actions were those of an imperial monarch.
Though many feared violence at the rally -- there were 700 army troops and many police present -- it came off peacefully.
The danger now is that the violence between those backing the king and those backing Mr. Buthelezi will return to the villages and townships of KwaZulu/Natal, making it again the bloody region it was for the last decade.