RICHMOND, South Africa -- The weekend assassination of a political warlord here and the immediate apparent reprisal killings of 11 others underlined a question that loomed even before the shootings: Can this year's elections be held without more widespread bloodshed?
In the first democratic elections in 1994, this volatile province of KwaZulu-Natal was ravaged by political violence between black parties. The cycle of killings here has never stopped, and now there are suspicions that white zealots are trying to intensify the situation as a first step toward destabilizing the province, and perhaps the nation.
The Western Cape province is another political powder keg. There, the African National Congress would like to wrest control this year from the New National Party, which was the old party of apartheid. Against the backdrop of this confrontation, an outbreak of gangsterism and urban terrorism is threatening local stability, with the army and police moving this week to try to forestall anarchy.
The ANC rules this small rural town set in attractive hills, but the new United Democratic Movement would like to establish it as its fiefdom.
Sisipho Nkabinde, 37, the national general secretary of the UDM, was shot to death Saturday as he, his bodyguard and the bodyguard's mother left a downtown supermarket. They were attacked by half a dozen gunmen who struck with military precision. Those with him were wounded and are hospitalized in critical condition.
Within 24 hours, an attack was launched on homes in an area controlled by the UDM's chief rival for local power, the governing ANC. Eleven people were killed and eight injured in apparent revenge for Nkabinde's death.
Police, soldiers deployed
Last night, more than 800 police and soldiers deployed here, but the situation remained volatile. A group of UDM gunmen ambushed a convoy carrying ANC officials in the town center yesterday morning. Three of the UDM attackers were wounded and two arrested.
President Nelson Mandela canceled a state visit to Uganda yesterday in response to the violence. This year's elections will end his era.
In KwaZulu-Natal province, black leaders emerged and maintained control during the years of apartheid largely by the power of the gun and their physical presence.
For almost 20 years, the bloody confrontation here has been between the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, defending its regional power base, and the ANC, which sought countrywide dominance.
Expelled from ANC
Nkabinde, a powerful figure with extensive military training during the struggle against apartheid, initially put himself at the service of the ANC. But in April 1997, he was expelled from the party for allegedly spying for the police during his years as a guerrilla.
He was subsequently arrested on 15 murder charges -- which he insisted were politically motivated -- and acquitted last year. Once out of jail he joined the UDM, a new nonracist party anxious for power. Nkabinde clearly wanted his own fiefdom here, for which he had to end ANC dominance.
In a television interview, he said: "I know that somewhere in this province there is one bullet with my name on it. When it comes up, it comes up, so I have nothing to fear."
The 'Third Force'
There is a complicating element -- a shadowy "Third Force," allegedly comprising white right-wing police and army officers ready to exploit local tensions to increase political instability.
The supposed goal: to make Richmond ungovernable as a first step to destabilizing the province, and perhaps the nation.
University of Natal researcher and conflict monitor Mary de Haas told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that Nkabinde's murder suggested "a deliberate strategy" to start another cycle of political killings here.
The police have a clue to the assassins who murdered the 11 people in the ANC-controlled area of Ndeleni. Security forces using night-vision goggles saw the attackers and believe they killed one, whose body is in the town morgue and whose identity is being established.
Other possible suspects
If suspicion in Nkabinde's death falls mainly on his ANC rivals, there are other possibilities: his bodyguards, some of whom he recently reportedly fired; professional criminals with whom he is said to have had a profitable relationship; and local taxi operators with whom he allegedly clashed over their lucrative but uncontrolled popular transport routes.
In the darkening town center last night, a young school teacher, too frightened to give his name, said: "Sisipho was behind the violence. He and a few strong men were responsible. Things should quiet down quite quickly now."
Nkabinde's grieving sister, Nonhlanhla, said: "He was clever. He was loving. He was tender, and he really did know how to look after us."
Pub Date: 1/25/99