Buthelezi threatens to boycott SA's first democratic election: Inkatha leader's demand comes as 12 more are murdered

MANGOSUTHU Buthelezi, warning of civil war 'or worse', said on Saturday that he would boycott South Africa's first democratic elections scheduled for 27 April next year.

For 12 of those trapped in the civil war already afflicting the black population south-east of Johannesburg - 400 have died since June - the issue is no longer of significance. Unknown gunmen yesterday opened fire on a gathering of people in the grounds of a factory, killing 12 - nine of them women - and wounding 20.

The manner of the killing was all too familiar, as were the conditions Chief Buthelezi imposed for his return to the multi-party talks debating a political settlement. The Inkatha Freedom Party leader said he would only participate if the government, the African National Congress and the other 17 political organisations which agree on 27 April - and which represent 80 per cent of the South African population - bowed to his will and changed the rules for the election.

'There is no way that . . . as president of Inkatha I am prepared to fight elections over who is going to write the constitution,' Chief Buthelezi said. 'I am just not prepared to do that because it is a disaster for our country.' Government and ANC officials say privately, for they dare not antagonise the sensitive Zulu chief in public, that 'disaster' in his lexicon means an election result that diminishes his power.

At Johannesburg's World Trade Centre, where multi-party talks have been going on all year to pave the way to democracy, one question looms large: 'What to do about Inkatha?'

Since Inkatha walked out of the talks two months ago this has also been the question uppermost in the minds of British, US and other diplomats united in their anxiety to see a peaceful, democratic and stable outcome in South Africa. The US ambassador, for example, is said to have been particularly forthright in recent encounters with Chief Buthelezi. Which is what prompted the chief, a welcome guest at the White House in the Eighties, to do the previously unthinkable and attack the US during a speech in Durban two weeks ago.

'The proposals at the World Trade Centre that the US wants me to accept are proposals that will thrust this country into civil war,' he said. 'I get the impression that the US is actually backing a Mandela victory because the US wants a settlement tomorrow, and it is a case of wanting a settlement at any price.'

As most Western diplomats will readily affirm, the chief is holding democracy in South Africa to ransom. It is common cause, as an analysis of the negotiations in yesterday's Johannesburg Star concluded, that whereas the government and the ANC have each made huge concessions to secure a peaceful political settlement, Inkatha has made none.

What does Chief Buthelezi want? He says he wants the constitution to be written and ratified not by an elected body, but by the forum currently engaged in talks. He wants the forum, besides, to set in stone a federal constitution granting a new 'Kwa-Natal' province a degree of autonomy tantamount to secession. He went a step further on Thursday when he declared that what he really sought was a federation of ethnic states - something virtually identical to the confederal neo-apartheid option of those in the far right calling for an independent Afrikaner state.

Such was the dismay this proposal caused that one of Chief Buthelezi's most devoted friends in the government, the National Party's Natal leader, George Bartlett, broke all precedent and openly criticised him the next day. This leads to the great question: why doesn't the government simply ignore the chief and proceed towards elections without him?

One reason is that the likes of Mr Bartlett in the cabinet have thus far remained obstinately attached to the idea of fighting an election against the ANC in alliance with Inkatha. For President F W de Klerk, who views Chief Buthelezi with almost as much distaste as Mr Mandela, to sever ties with Inkatha would be to risk the break-up of his party.

A more compelling reason, shared by the ANC and the government, is that if Chief Buthelezi does boycott elections - or rejects the result - the possibility exists that Inkatha will join forces with the far right and make good on his promise of civil war. Mr de Klerk's and Mr Mandela's uncertainty as to where the police and army would stand in such an eventuality only reinforces the chief's hand.