Tension eased after KwaZulu/Natal's administration backed down on a politically charged plan to allow 500 mostly Zulu cadets to graduate into its provincial force after allegations that more than a dozen had criminal records.
KwaZulu/Natal is the only province run by Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, the chief rival among black South Africans to Mr Mandela's African National Congress. Many in the ANC believed the cadets were linked to Inkatha gangs.
"Inkatha have lost the skirmish, but it was just a skirmish, a shot across the bows. There will be more," said the political editor of a newspaper in Durban, capital of KwaZulu/Natal.
Violence reminiscent of ANC-Inkatha troubles before last April's multi-racial elections has begun to return to the province, with 130 people dying in January, according to Durban anthropologist Mary de Haas.
Analysts say the key issue is Mr Buthelezi's desire to retain maximum power in Kwa-Zulu/Natal, an ambition threatened by a new independence being shown by the Zulu king, and local elections due in October.
Mr Buthelezi is also Minister of Home Affairs in the government of national unity, but cabinet sources say he is having trouble juggling that responsibility with his need to keep his home base secure. "It's make-or-break year for Buthelezi. He's desperate. While he is screaming for international mediation and federalism, his real aim is autonomy and total power," said Mrs de Haas.
Mr Buthelezi is insisting on a constitutional role for his pro-Inkatha network of Zulu chiefs, which he says is guaranteed by a reference in the transitional constitution to the need to respect tradition.
Mr Buthelezi's threat to October's local elections is perhaps the most serious problem. Inkatha chiefs could prevent 2.7 million of the 4.5 million people in the region from voting, which would raise serious problems of legitimacy and could even fan separatist ideas.
"We say that we must make the chiefs compatible with modern democracy. But the ANC says they only want only democracy ... that won't work," said the Inkatha secretary-general, Ziba Jiyane. He pointed out that in theory, the government had no say over Kwa-Zulu policing because the new Police Act is not yet law. But for the time being, the centralising spirit of the Act has prevailed.
Mr Mandela was helped by strong backing and public support for a multi-racial new management of the police force that he unveiled on Sunday. The new police commissioner, George Fivaz, also insisted that he would not recognise any graduation ceremony heldby the KwaZulu/Natal police cadets.
nMr Mandela yesterday called on members of the police force to defend democracy, and promised the government would address their grievances, Reuter reports. "It is vital members of the services do not engage in actions which will undermine the process [of transformation], weaken discipline or damage the confidence the public has in you," he told officers at a training college in the Eastern Cape. "The government understands your resources are limited, but we depend on you."