IZINGOLWENI, South Africa -- When the political leaders of South Africa squabble, the people of KwaZulu-Natal are usually the ones who die.

They have been dying in this rural settlement for weeks now -- seven in one particularly grisly incident, five in another. The killings follow ancient fault lines between Zulu clans -- and those separating President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, the party of the Zulus.

And this time the killings are about the future of the Zulus' tribal chiefs.

In Zulu, the chiefs are the amakhosi, the hereditary rulers, and wield tremendous power. They adjudicate local disputes and allocate tribal lands. It is by controlling the chiefs that Inkatha has controlled the fate of the 8 million Zulus. But now democracy threatens the chiefs, and thus Inkatha.

Democracy is to come through local elections, scheduled for October. Mr. Mandela's ANC-dominated government insists that local officials in South Africa be elected to their posts, not inherit them.

"We want a democratic government," said Harry Gwala, head of a regional branch of the ANC, which pays lip service to the idea of preserving a role for tribal leaders. "We could have easily said the day of the chiefs was gone. But instead, we said that chiefs would be part of a democratic South Africa."

Still, ANC officials do not describe how the traditional and new structures will mesh. Chiefs would still exist, but their power would be diluted, as would be the power of Inkatha.

Ziba Jiyane, a top Inkatha official, said that new local government structures "ought to preserve those things which have kept the stability of our communities going. If you remove the hereditary or spiritual dimension of the amakhosi role and put in ordinary people who are elected there will be a breakdown."

Mr. Jiyane said tribal chiefs must retain the power to allocate land. "The moment you remove that power, I think in six months' time, half the people in the tribe will be landless because rich people will come and buy their land. They won't understand what is happening. They will be nothing but homeless vagabonds."

Violence between ANC and Inkatha supporters reached these green hills in southern KwaZulu-Natal in 1990, five years after it erupted in the densely populated townships. Young ANC members, emboldened by Mr. Mandela's release from prison, challenged the hold of Inkatha and its chiefs.

"They started killing people," said Sipho Ngcobo, the local Inkatha leader. "That was in 1990. In 1991, again killing took place, but this time it was the ANC that was dying."

The surviving ANC supporters -- about 30 of them -- fled. Negotiations for their return went on all last year. But the talks broke down when Inkatha demanded that the ANC supporters appear before the local chief with their parents, an acknowledgment of his authority. The youths claimed that that would endanger their lives, and refused.

In January, many of them came back anyway to attend a funeral. They decided to stay, in defiance of the chief. And troubled times have returned to Izingolweni.

The part of Izingolweni occupied by the ANC members is now nearly deserted. The other residents have fled, either out of fear of the ANC members, or out of fear of being labeled collaborators by Inkatha if they stayed.

In another rural Zulu community, about 50 miles away, Chief Bhekizizwe Luthuli was performing one of his weekly tasks: He was sitting in front of his pink house, listening to the complaints of his constituents.

One was an intrafamily dispute, something not uncommon when husbands can have several wives and thus many sets of children living in the kraal, a family's group of houses. Another involved a woman who wanted a plot of land that was serviced by electricity.

Of all the chief's powers, allocating land is the most important. All land in traditional Zulu areas is, in theory, owned by the Zulu king; the 300 local chiefs are allowed to distribute it in their communities.

However deep his traditional roots, Chief Luthuli displays the trappings of modernity. There is a cellular phone on his belt and two Mercedes in his garage, paid for by a variety of businesses.

He is an Inkatha member of the national parliament, exactly the type of political partisanship that Zulu King Goodwill Zwelethini condemned last year when he broke with the leader of Inkatha, Mr. Buthelezi. The king called on Zulu leaders to rise above party politics.

Chief Luthuli, in turn, condemns King Zwelethini as ungrateful to Inkatha, and insists that the chiefs must retain their powers.

"If we are going to forfeit the land," Chief Luthuli says, "chieftainship is finished.

"If you are an nkhosi, you are born as nkhosi. Just like in any other place, if you are born great, you are born great. If you are born with a silver spoon, you are born with a silver spoon. I don't think we need somebody to elect us."

Inkatha says it is supporting the chiefs to protect the traditions of the Zulu people, their right to run their lives as they see fit. The ANC, however, maintains that the tradition being protected is merely the system of governance installed by the British after they defeated the Zulus in the late 19th century, a system that manipulated the chiefs to govern as the British saw fit.

The system was later adopted by the apartheid government and became the basis for governing in the tribal homelands. Thus, the ANC charges, what Inkatha is protecting is not Zulu tradition, but its own power structure.

What is agreed is that, until this dispute is settled, the hills of KwaZulu-Natal will continue to be stained red with blood.

"I liked it better when they fought with sticks," said Chris le Roux, the white South African who has headed the police station in Izingolweni for more than a decade. "Then they would beat each other silly and go home alive."

Now the fights are with automatic weapons, such as the AK-47.

"These issues have to be settled politically, at the top," said Bruce Walker of the Port Shepstone area Peace Committee, who has brokered settlements in the past.

"Unfortunately, on the ground, that translates into violence."

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