Chief who lives under the shadow of death: Conflict in KwaZulu is reaching into the rural township of Mondlo, writes John Carlin

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The Independent Online
IN THE 1820s the great-great- grandfather of Dalwayini Mdlalose, Nhlaka Mdlalose, rendered brave service in battle to Shaka, the warrior-king who founded the Zulu nation. Shaka rewarded Nhlaka with the chieftaincy of the Mdlalose tribe, a title kept in the family for perpetuity.

Chief Dalwayini, born at the turn of the century, has been kicked off his ancestral land by white farmers and suffered many tribulations. But he has not known, he said, such troubled times as these. His only comfort is that he no longer has to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership over a tribe of 50,000. Five years ago he transferred the burden to his eldest son Jabulani, the acting chief.

When the tribal elders meet, however, it is still the old chief who occupies pride of place in the square-shaped lounge which has replaced the circular kraal of old. I was present at such a meeting a few days ago at Chief Dalwayini's home, where I was treated with the disconcerting deference the early British settlers in Natal received when they visited Shaka.

I was positioned on the right- hand side of Chief Dalwayini, whose wife sat behind him on the floor, on her knees, stone-silent throughout. Chief Jabulani sat on the old chief's left. On my right sat a bespectacled young man called Johannes, who acted as my interpreter. Gathered in a circle were five women and, a reverent space apart, eight men, average age 60.

The occasion was the return of Chief Jabulani, who had fled to Johannesburg four weeks ago after word spread that Inkatha were out to kill him. That morning I had driven him the 250 miles home to Mondlo, a rural township of grey houses and yellow-green hills, to discover that the night before his home and car had been set alight. Since his departure two people had been killed, several had been injured and more than a dozen homes had been set alight. The seeds were being sown, everything indicated, of yet another intra-Zulu conflict.

Chief Jabulani, whose position forbids him to pass partisan political judgement, kept silent for the most part. It was the elders who spoke. Each question generated animated debate in Zulu but it was always one man upon whom it fell to distil the popular feeling.

He apologised but said he could not tell me his name. 'For security reasons.' But there was nothing anonymous about his appearance. His bearing and features evoked the image of a 16th-century Spanish noble, especially the melancholic eyes, unusually fine nose and fastidiously trimmed snow- white beard.

'We have a serious problem here. Last night we had to sleep in the mountains. We have never had to do this before. The problems started a month ago but yesterday the big problem was that the KwaZulu police attacked with Inkatha. So it is most terrible.'

Why did the police join with Inkatha? 'Because Chief Buthelezi is the Chief Minister of KwaZulu and he is Minister of Police and he is the leader of Inkatha. So we know the names of the Inkatha people making all the trouble but there is no one to stop them. They have guns and we only have sticks and spears.'

A low-level civil war has been raging in Natal and the adjoining 'homeland' of KwaZulu for the past six years. But Mondlo had been at peace until the beginning of last month. What precipitated the conflict was the refusal of Chief Jabulani to allow the tribal land to be transferred from Natal to KwaZulu, from his chieftaincy to that of an Inkatha appointee. The ruling was made in Pretoria in April but the chief has contested the issue and the Ministry of Land Affairs is re-examining it. As the elders' spokesman saw it, Inkatha had decided there was a simpler way to resolve the matter: 'They have decided they will only be certain of the land if they kill the chief.'

Why didn't they simply accept the land transfer, join Inkatha and ensure they were left in peace?

The debate took three or four minutes to settle. 'There are many reasons. One is that four and a half years ago, when the white farmers kicked some of us off their land, we went to Ulundi (the KwaZulu capital) to report this. You see, we used to belong to Inkatha. But in Ulundi we were told we had to accept this. That the white farmers had the right to do what they had done. And we have learnt now - and it makes us very suspicious - that many of the white farmers have become Inkatha members.'

So did they support the African National Congress? They nodded. 'We like Mandela because even when he was in jail he said that if he was released he would start fighting for us again.' But Mandela is not a Zulu; he is a Xhosa. 'What is important is that Mandela is fighting for any South African.'

They had made their choice. But how would they protect themselves? Nobody knew. 'While you sit there writing, we are safe. But after you go, people will die and houses will burn.'

So I left, feeling quite helpless, but not as helpless as Chief Jabulani, who came back with me, tormented about what to do with his three young children by the second of his two wives. He said he would return to Mondlo to fetch them but did not know where to take them. He is living in a back room in Johannesburg with an older daughter who works as a maid for a white family.

For most of the trip home the chief was silent. He only opened up late into the night. 'You see, the problem is that Buthelezi is frightened because elections are coming, because he knows most of the Zulus will not vote for him. And because of this there will be much bloodshed. You can forget about peace now - in Mondlo and elsewhere. To talk of peace is useless. More will have to die.'

(Photograph omitted)