Zulus in last stand against invasion of ANC forces

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The Independent Online

As battle neared, the Zulu prepared for a final show of force. Thousands of warriors, clad in animal skin loincloths and brandishing spears, gathered around their leader. Ancient songs filled the air. Cattle and sheep were offered in tribute. "This is our nation," declared Petros Mdlentshe, a pot-bellied pensioner banging a shield.

As battle neared, the Zulu prepared for a final show of force. Thousands of warriors, clad in animal skin loincloths and brandishing spears, gathered around their leader. Ancient songs filled the air. Cattle and sheep were offered in tribute. "This is our nation," declared Petros Mdlentshe, a pot-bellied pensioner banging a shield.

Great wars, many against 19th-century British colonists, are central to the Zulu identity. But this week's battle is about votes, not violence.

Tomorrow South Africa goes to the polls for its third democratic election since the end of apartheid a decade ago. The result is beyond doubt - the African National Congress (ANC) of President Thabo Mbeki is predicted to scoop at least two-thirds of the vote.

But here in KwaZulu-Natal - one of just two provinces the ANC does not control outright - the poll will be a fight. The ANC is struggling for supremacy with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a Zulu nationalist party led by Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi, with which it shares a blood-stained history. As democracy dawned in 1994, supporters from the two parties clashed violently, claiming an estimated 20,000 lives.

This time, however, peace has prevailed - relatively speaking. Eleven people have died compared with more than 100 in 1999, in what analysts see as further proof of South Africa's fortified democracy.

"This election shows that everything is possible. It's good news," said Nhlanhla Mtaka of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, a think-tank.

Nevertheless, it may not be plain sailing. On Monday, Zulus from across the province streamed into Nogoma, a remote hilltop town that was once the seat of Zulu royalty, for the IFPs climactic rally. Bearing ceremonial spears and shields, they had come to hear Dr Buthelezi, a member of the Zulu royal family who once led the province under the apartheid system. For the past decade, he has served in the ANC government - currently as Home Affairs minister - but the relationship has recently soured. Dr Buthelezi has described the ANC as "authoritarian" and underscored its failings in power - the HIV/Aids scourge, unemployment and crime.

"They practice the politics of ideology and broken promises," he told the cheering crowd.

Yet in reality it is tribe, not policy, that matters for these Zulus. Many say the ANC is dominated by Xhosas such as Mr Mbeki and Nelson Mandela, and predict another IFP win at polling today. "The ANC will never rule this province. Here, we are behind just one party - and that stretches back to King Shaka," said Nkosinathi Eric in reference to their famed 19th-century leader.

Elsewhere in the restive province, however, the result is less certain. The ANC has launched a campaign to dent the IFP dominance, deploying the party top brass for door-to-door canvassing. The strategy appears to be paying off. Pollsters give the ANC a marginal advantage. "They are in with a good chance," said Ashwin Desai of the University of Natal.

The politicking is a far cry from 1994, when many candidates were preoccupied with simply staying alive. Both sides have canvassed in previous "no-go" areas and the worst fears today centre on isolated flare-ups.

Just to make sure, the government has sent an extra 20,000 soldiers and policemen, backed up with helicopters, to keep the peace. The teams have swept through rural areas, questioning villagers and seizing more than 100 weapons. Dr Buthelezi, who alleges the ANC rigged some votes in 1999, said he feared more dirty play. "If there is evidence of cheating I will not accept the election results," he said.

But analysts say rigging is unlikely because Dr Buthelezi already controls the rural polling stations most vulnerable to interference.

The ANC's other major battleground will be in the Western Cape province, where it is vying with the white-dominated Democratic Alliance.

Victory in either area will amplify questions about South Africa's major political unknown - how long it will take the opposition to seriously challenge the ANC monopoly.

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