Speaking the local Zulu language, Mr Mbeki, a Xhosa who is expected to succeed President Nelson Mandela after the national and provincial elections on 2 June, told ANC supporters, "we must not be afraid". His air of confidence at the rally in Richmond, a farming town which has seenclashes with the Inkatha Freedom Party, reflected an opinion poll last week which showed that the ANC, on 28 per cent support, is seven per cent ahead of the IFP in the province. In 1994, the IFP, whose leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, is Home Affairs Minister, won KwaZulu-Natal with 51 per cent of the vote.
"You will have these pockets of violence, but I think, generally, people are showing that they will not be intimidated," said Mr Mbeki, who arrived in an army helicopter. But anything can happen in the province where traditional leaders, the amakhosi, maintain a strong hold on voting intentions, especially in rural areas, and local rivalries can flare up at any moment. Chief Buthelezi is chairman of the House of Traditional leaders.
Kwazulu-Natal, which includes the port of Durban and is South Africa's most populous province, has been the scene of political violence which has claimed 20,000 lives since the Eighties. A trouble-free run-up to the provincial and national elections, followed by a majority vote for the ANC, could spell the beginning of the end of the IFP, which may have to be content with power-sharing in the provincial legislature.
The start of Mr Mbeki's visit to the province, on Friday, was marked by a reminder of the kind of violence which marred the first multi-race elections, in 1994. Four houses were set on fire near a riverbed that divides areas of ANC support from the hilltop stronghold of followers of Sifiso Nkabinde, a warlord who was assassinated in January. Nkabinde was ousted from the ANC amid allegations that he spied for the government during the final years of white rule, which ended with Mr Mandela's election in 1994.
He joined the fledgling United Democratic Movement led by another ANC renegade, Bantu Holomisa, but used his base in the new party merely as a platform from which to fight his personal battle with the ANC for control of Richmond.
Local politicians said Friday's burnings were probably attempts to intimidate ANC supporters planning to attend Mr Mbeki's rally. But intimidation is still a strong feature in KwaZulu-Natal and opinion poll figures about voting intentions could be vastly misleading.
Nevertheless, in the last five years, the ANC is believed to have won much rural support through an intensive programme in KwaZulu-Natal of road building and health care.
The ANC's provincial chairman, S'bu Ndebele, has aggressively promoted the ideas and stature of Mr Mbeki, who has chaired cabinet meetings for two years and has quietly been running South Africa, even though President Mandela has been its figurehead.
Mr Ndebele said: `Unlike 1994 there is no area in KwaZulu-Natal where the ANC's presence is not going to be felt. We are going to consolidate our base in areas that support the ANC. We will also advance in new areas."Reuse content