ELANDSKOP, South Africa -- The bright colors of the church uniforms stood out from the veld grass that has turned brown in the dryness of winter. Like bright flowers in a field, women dressed in the greens, blues, reds, purples, blacks and yellows of their denominations were waiting for a solemn ceremony.
Today, those women will vote in elections to choose the local authorities in the province of KwaZulu/Natal. Yesterday they gathered to remember the thousands who have died in the political violence of the province and to beseech their God and their ancestors for peace.
There has been no peace between the Zulu traditionalists of the Inkatha Freedom Party and members of the African National Congress, the party of South African President Nelson Mandela. More than 10,000 people have died in their violence.
In the elections today, Inkatha is appealing to Zulus who want to retain their tribal structures of governance. The ANC says that authority should be not with tribal leaders, but with officials who are democratically elected -- a change Inkatha leaders see as a threat.
Thus, the decade of violence over the role of Inkatha and the role of KwaZulu/Natal's 309 chiefs.
In the tribal areas of the province, property is owned by the community and administered by the local chief. And it is the chief who decides how to allocate it among his subjects. The ANC is pushing for a Western system in which land is owned by individuals.
"These traditional authorities are needed to maintain the integrity of the rural sections, to keep the social cohesion of these communities," says Philip Powell, the local Inkatha leader. Otherwise, he argues, developers will strip a peasant community of its only form of wealth.
In Inkatha's vision of the future, the rural councils being elected today will have jurisdiction over roads and major services -- but Zulu chiefs will retain authority in all other matters, "as they have for a thousand years."
The ANC complains that the chiefs have become all too publicly tied to Inkatha.
"We are not against chiefs -- though that is what our opponents want them to believe," says Sifiso Nkabinde, the ANC leader in nearby Pietermaritzburg. "They have their traditional role to play in rural areas, but they should not drag themselves down into the muck of politics.
"We are not saying they should be thrown into the dustbin of history, but people should have a right to choose who governs them in elections."
Now, there seems a chance for peace instead of violence.
"There is a different tone in the meetings we have now," Nkabinde says of his session with Inkatha officials. "Before, we came in wanting to fight."
So the brightly dressed women are in the field, praying in their fashion for peaceful times.
Across the road from that gathering is the home of David Ntombela -- an induna, or headman, whose powers are tied to his association with Inkatha. He called this meeting in the field after two women came to him and told of their dreams.
The women stood before the group -- women on one side, men on another -- their voices crackling over a small loudspeaker as they told that they both dreamed about a local chief who had died in fighting in the province.
One of the women said that in her dream, the chief said that the souls of those who died in the violence were unsettled, that they could not rest quietly unless a group gathered and sacrificed a black sheep.
The other woman said she dreamed that women must fast when their men are off at meetings or battles, but that the chief appeared and said that fasting is not enough.
For Ntombela, this was confirmation of the first dream. So he called the gathering in the field.
"We meet to purify the community at the insistence of those who have died in the violence," said Agrippa Bhengu, an assistant to Ntombela who officiated in religious robes.
The uniforms of the women -- purple for Catholics, leopard hats for African Presbyterians, green sashes for Zion church -- testified to the ecumenical appeal of the day.
After three hours of speeches and fervent prayers and hymns sung in the deep harmonies of Zulu voices, the warm sun had disappeared behind high clouds and chill wind blew.
Finally a black sheep was produced from a nearby pickup truck. The animal was surrounded by men carrying the traditional Zulu weapons -- spears, clubs and cowhide shields.
Ntombela stood in front of the sheep and recited the names of those who died in the violence -- all from the Inkatha camp.
The sheep was moved a few dozen yards away where a bedspring was held off the ground by boulders. A man inserted a knife in its belly and moved it until he found the heart. A fire was set underneath the bedspring, and the dead sheep was placed on it. Herbs burned to ease communication with the ancestors were placed alongside.
The men chanted and then the women gathered around and began singing again as the fire roared and the meat was consumed.
The sun broke through, illuminating the endless rolling brown hills, dotted with houses and circular Zulu huts and kralls for containing the cattle.
People drifted away.
After nightfall, an unseasonable thunderstorm rumbled through the area.
Pub Date: 6/26/96