For three years a bloody feud raged between the factions. The ANC was fighting to stay; Inkatha was fighting to drive it out. Somewhere between 200 and 300 people had died in tit-for-tat raids since the troubles began in 1992. The heaviest losses tended to be on the ANC side.
Life became unbearable and 600 residents fled Shobashobane. In July this year, a few hundred were encouraged by the ANC, and the South African government, to return. Almost immediately the war broke out again.
In early August, two busloads of armed Inkatha extremists were brought in, supposedly from Durban. They divided into three groups and, as darkness fell, they attacked. The local ANC chairman, Kipha Simon Nyawusa, and his self-defence units repulsed the attackers.
Mr Nyawusa had already lost about a dozen relatives in the factional feuding, but was determined to stay in the village of his birth. A few weeks ago he revealed in a television documentary how he constantly watched and waited for attacks he knew were coming.
It was dangerous work and Mr Nyawusa knew it. Standing in the charred ruins of the home where an Inkatha raiding party had killed eight members of his family, he said: "I must stay at other people's houses. One day I sleep at one house and the next day I go somewhere else. Everyday it's a different house."
In the end neither his vigilance nor his security measures, nor his dreams, were sufficient. On a bright Christmas Day, at 7.30am,somewhere between 600 and 1,000 Zulu warriors, men and women, armed with guns, knives, spears, and two-way radios, gathered on the hills above Shobashobane with murderous intent.
The massacre started shortly after 8am. One of the first victims was Mr Nyawusa himself. He became the 15th member of his family to die in the conflict. According to police, the soft-spoken ANC leader was disem- bowelled by bush knives. It was a horrible, slow death.
Survivors of the attack described a well-planned raid conducted with military precision. The group was divided into at least two impis, a military formation going back to King Shaka, founder of the Zulu nation. Women accompanied their men, ululating and singing. While the men killed, the women looted and set fire to the homes.
By the time the carnage was over, four hours later, at least 19 were dead and 22 wounded, and 87 houses gutted.
It was the third massacre in less than two weeks and came at a time when human rights groups had said that ANC-Inkatha violence was declining. The sudden brutality of the Christmas Day massacre has sent everyone scrambling to explain what is happening in Natal and how to stop it. Fourteen more died in political violence on Friday, bringing the death toll to 189 in seven days.
Some political analysts blame tradition. They said tribal chiefs often waited to settle old scores during the festive season, when Zulu men returned home from jobs in the industrial areas for the holidays. But there are more worrying explanations than a seasonal settling of scores. Many ANC officials and human rights monitors see the hand of a third force alliance of Inkatha extremists and right-wing members of the security forces.
Driving the killing, they say, is Inkatha's desire to use violence to bolster demands for regional autonomy from the ANC-dominated central government, and to reinforce its political position before local elections in March. White right-wing diehards want to see the province destabilised for their own political ends.
"There is an old boy network still engaged in destabilisation," said Mary de Haas, an anthropologist at Natal University and a dedicated monitor of the troubles in the province. "It is driven by a right-wing ideology that likes [Inkatha leader Mangosuthu] Buthelezi because it sees him as its creation. It believes that if you can control KwaZulu-Natal, with its ports and harbours, then you control South Africa."
During apartheid, South Africa's white minority government created an apparatus to encourage Inkatha-ANC violence to keep its black enemies at each others' throats. Now, according to Ms de Haas, the war in KwaZulu- Natal has been privatised by those formerly involved. She believes they are doing so with support from like-minded people still in the police force.
There is strong circumstantial evidence to support her claims. Ms de Haas said that on the Friday before the massacre, she and several ANC officials had pleaded with the commander of the police station in nearby Izingolweni for police reinforcements for Shobashobane because of rumours that trouble was brewing. The police response was to raid ANC houses and confiscate weapons, a move which left Shobashobane defenceless.
However, although there is little doubt Shobashobane's attackers took advantage of the situation, Ms de Haas acknowledges it is difficult to prove the two events were related as part of a plan.
Many survivors of Monday's massacre suspect police involvement because, they claim, it took hours before police responded. South Africa's national police commissioner, George Fivaz, recommended that the government form an independent investigative panel.
But even with all the bloody weight of history, many people find it difficult to comprehend why neighbours continue to kill each other. Before his death Kipha Simon Nyawusa told a television crew: "Actually I don't know what's a good reason for why these people come to attack us. But they always attack us."Reuse content