The decision of President F W de Klerk on Thursday to send South African Defence Force troops into his KwaZulu fiefdom has shaken his will and destroyed his capacity to wreck the country's first democratic elections later this month.
The Zulu civil war between supporters of Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha party and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress will be contained sufficiently to allow reasonably free and fair elections, preventing Inkatha from undermining South Africa's nascent democracy.
Inkatha is now a wounded, cornered animal, and while its last throes will lead to more bloodshed, more piles of corpses in coming weeks, the best course left to Chief Buthelezi is to negotiate the terms of an honourable surrender. This he will hope to do when he and his nephew, Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, meet this week with Mr Mandela and Mr de Klerk.
Until February 1990, when Mr Mandela was released, Chief Buthelezi had entertained the notion that he could become president of South Africa. Then, upon discovering that, in terms of popular support, Inkatha was no match for the ANC, he settled for the idea that he could become governor of a new province, Natal / KwaZulu. When he realised on the evidence of all the opinion polls that the ANC would defeat him even on his Zulu turf, he made common cause with the racist white right, pulled out of constitutional negotiations and said he would not take part in the elections. His fall-back option was to seek refuge in patriotism and demand the establishment of a Zulu kingdom to rule all of Natal and KwaZulu.
Last Sunday, warning once more of imminent civil war, he declared the stage was set for 'a fight to the finish with the ANC'. What a difference a week makes.
Early on Monday morning Inkatha warriors invaded central Johannesburg. They arrived dancing, firing shots in the air, brandishing spears and shields. They marched past the ANC's national headquarters once, twice. The third time, ANC security personnel had had enough. Cold-bloodedly, they opened fire. Eight warriors lay dead on the street. Outside the main city library snipers opened fire on the main regiment, the 'impi'. Four or five died and scores lay wounded. At two in the afternoon the impi left town, heads bowed, dragging their spears behind them, escorted by the army and police. The fear now was that the warriors would wreak vengeance on the townships. Instead they retreated to their hostels.
The next day Chief Buthelezi snarled and raged and called off, with King Goodwill's support, a summit planned for Wednesday with Mr de Klerk and Mr Mandela. The 'war' shifted back to the Natal / KwaZulu cockpit. That night five young ANC officials were lured to an Inkatha hostel for 'peace talks' and mown down with AK47s, in revenge for the events in Johannesburg. The Natal/ KwaZulu death toll for March, the Human Rights Commission announced, was 266.
On Wednesday the cabinet met. Five days earlier, Mr Mandela had urged Mr de Klerk to impose a state of emergency. Mr de Klerk had demurred, suggesting instead that they wait for the outcome of the talks with the Zulu king and his uncle. But now the talks were off indefinitely, and things could no longer be allowed to drift. The cabinet seriously examined the prospect of a state of emergency. Early on Thursday morning, Mr de Klerk met his generals, and at 10.30 he announced the state of emergency. The army would go in 'incrementally' over the next weeks. Rule of law would be suspended, the army and the police would be granted extraordinary powers of arrest, search and seizure.
The emergency regulations, as published by the government, were clearly targeted at Inkatha, in response to its well-chronicled tactics to disrupt the elections. Fines and/or imprisonment face those contravening regulations that prohibit:
Organising unauthorised military or paramilitary training or the use and construction of weapons and ammunition;
Interference with lawful gatherings (in terms of this regulation, no person may threaten others or intimidate them);
Contravening the prohibition on the carrying and display of weapons, including firearms, assegais, spears, axes, pangas and knobkieries.
On Thursday night Chief Buthelezi appeared on a current affairs television programme called Agenda. When the presenter crossed to him in Ulundi, the capital of his one-party KwaZulu 'homeland', the chief had his eyes shut. His head hung over his chest.
A top Inkatha official in Johannesburg had declared on Thursday afternoon that the imposition of a state of emergency meant the start of the civil war, the presenter said. Did Chief Buthelezi agree?
No he did not. The official was clearly 'traumatised' by the killings on Monday and did not know what he was saying.
In the Durban studio, Jacob Zuma, the ANC's candidate for governor - or premier - of Natal / KwaZulu, expressed his horror at the killings of ANC and Inkatha officials, and noted his own homestead had been burnt down a few days earlier.
Chief Buthelezi came in and, meekness itself, said he agreed with much of what Mr Zuma had said and, 'a fight to the finish' now apparently forgotten, expressed his deep sorrow at the burning of his homestead. He repeated three times how sorry he was to have heard this. 'I would not want to have my homestead burnt down,' the chief said.
Meanwhile King Goodwill, Natal newspapers reported yesterday, was telling a meeting of Zulu leaders that the time had come to pursue the cause of peace.
On Friday afternoon Chief Buthelezi put an end to doubts that the imposition of the state of emergency - which he at first characterised as an 'invasion' - would rule out talks with Mr Mandela and Mr de Klerk. He declared that he and the king would attend, probably on Wednesday. And then, amazingly, he said: 'Even at this late stage there is a chance the Inkatha Freedom Party may join the elections.'
Why has Chief Buthelezi backpedalled so dramatically?
The point is that his power has never been at a lower ebb than it is today, the balance of forces never more unfavourable to his cause. Five years ago, before the democratic process began, everything seemed to be going his way. He enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the West, notably Margaret Thatcher, whose official doors were always open to him; he enjoyed the backing of South African business; he exercised unchallenged, autocratic rule over KwaZulu; he had the support of the Pretoria government and, above all, the security forces in his war against the ANC and its allies.
Now the international and the local business communities have turned against him. On Wednesday the US ambassador, Princeton Lyman, gave a speech in Durban before the leading lights of the Natal private sector. Chief Buthelezi was in attendance. The ambassador spoke out vigorously in favour of the new constitution and the elections. It was a slap in the face for Chief Buthelezi. At the end of the speech, the only member of the audience who did not join in the enthusiastic applause was the Zulu leader.
His hold over the KwaZulu administration is shaky. After the elections, the funds from Pretoria on which the homeland depends for 90 per cent of its budget will dry up, and the civil servants, KwaZulu police included, are already restless.
The National Party government of Mr de Klerk, as officials will readily concede in private, has lost all patience with Chief Buthelezi. It views him as an anti-democrat and a volatile troublemaker. The ANC, the government-in-waiting, believes him to be unpredictable and dangerous.
Most important, for a man who has relied on terror as his principal instrument of political persuasion, he no longer has the unconditional support of the security forces. The 'third force' connection between Inkatha and the security police was shamefully and conclusively exposed by the Goldstone Commission two weeks ago. Ordinary policemen in Natal have not been providing Inkatha killers with immunity from arrest in the last two years. And now the SADF, a force far mightier than the rag-tag army of semi-trained warriors Inkatha has put together in recent months, has been let loose on Inkatha.
Chief Buthelezi became accustomed, during the apartheid years, to play the game against the ANC with loaded dice. When states of emergency were imposed in the 1980s, it was only ANC loyalists who were detained, never Inkatha supporters, however heinous their crimes. That has now changed forever, and Chief Buthelezi is faced with two choices.
Either he takes part in the elections and prepares himself for the prospect of opposition politics - although this option might be logistically impossible at this late stage; or, more likely, he cuts a deal this week with Mr Mandela and Mr de Klerk, whereby King Goodwill is constitutionally assured of his kingdom, a new monarchic tier of government is created, with largely symbolic powers, and he prepares to serve out his days in politics as prince and traditional chief minister to the king.
Nelson Mandela will have the power, but Chief Buthelezi, if he can muster some method, has one last opportunity to save some face and salvage a political role for himself after the elections. The alternative, a fight to the finish, means only one thing: oblivion.