The union, unthinkable just a few years ago, still requires the long- term blessing of armed foot-soldiers from both parties in the troubled KwaZulu-Natal province. But if it holds, it will be an early triumph for Thabo Mbeki, who will succeed President Nelson Mandela after the elections on 2 June.
Spokesmen for both parties refused to comment yesterday on recent talks and possible trade-offs between Mr Mbeki, president of the ruling ANC, and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. But Thabo Masebe, ANC spokesman, said: "What is happening is amazing."
On Sunday morning, if all goes to plan, Mr Mbeki and Chief Buthelezi will stage an unprecedented show of unity in KwaZulu-Natal by appearing together at a prayer meeting in a Durban stadium. The two parties are also expected to announce at least two pre-election joint rallies in the province.
KwaZulu-Natal, which is South Africa's most populous province and is dominated by Zulus, has been riven by violence since the mid-Eighties. Youth mobs from both parties have burnt thousands of villages and lynched whole families.
At the last national elections in 1994, there were at least 100 no-go areas in the province - strongholds of one or other party where free campaigning was impossible. These were usually controlled by local warlords, armed by the apartheid regime.
Last Friday, after long- running and frequently interrupted talks between the ruling ANC and Inkatha, a peace pact was signed between the two parties in Durban. However, a long-awaited joint unveiling of a monument to victims of the struggle against apartheid, at Thokoza township near Johannesburg, was cancelled.
The two events, which happened a day apart, have been taken to demonstrate that the marriage is far from complete and could still encounter setbacks. Nevertheless, at the end of his Inkatha rally in Thokoza, Chief Buthelezi was heard to shout "Viva ANC, viva".
The Inkatha leader has been mooted for the deputy presidency - an appointment that would be a trade-off for his co-operation with the ruling party.
Both Inkatha and the ANC have denied any such deal for Chief Buthelezi, who is currently Home Affairs Minister. But it is clear that the parties need one another. In the 1994 general election, Inkatha won 51 per cent of the vote, giving it control of provincial government. But Inkatha has no hope of matching that score this time. Traditional leaders - whom Inkatha's federalist message comforted because it seemed to secure their position - are now on the payroll of central government.
Furthermore, the party has disappointed rural electors by failing to deliver water and electricity to many. KwaZulu-Natal is also the Aids centre of South Africa, with one in four pregnant women HIV positive.
Two recent opinion polls have put the ANC in the lead in the province but never by a convincing majority. And with KwaZulu's history of voter intimidation, opinion polls are at their least reliable there. Last week, a seven-tonne Inkatha arms cache was uncovered and blown up; and a smaller one was found at the weekend.
Chief Buthelezi himself, who is being advised by a British spin-doctor, Andrew Smith, has adopted a gentler persona. At Thokoza, where none of his warrior-supporters carried arms, he made conciliatory comments, such as: "As leaders we have the responsibility of taking initiatives which send the message that peace and reconciliation must be pursued at all costs."Reuse content