The two joked and laughed as the President declared Chief Buthelezi was "my traditional leader, my chief and my prince". He paid tribute to the head of the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IPF) as one of the people who worked hardest for his release from 27 years of imprisonment under apartheid.
Mr Mandela then stunned onlookers when he referred to simmering violence in KwaZulu-Natal, saying: "There is a problem, but there is no crisis."
It was a curious display from a man who only the previous day had told journalists he was ready to seek additional powers so he could to cut funds to Mr Buthelezi's KwaZulu-Natal administration, which he said had been violently plotting against the central government and supporters of the African National Congress (ANC).
For his part, Mr Buthelezi, Home Affairs Minister in Mr Mandela's Government of National Unity, showed no irony when he declared: "I am a loyal member of the President's cabinet." Twelve days ago, however, he told followers to "rise and resist" a government he accused of arrogance and treachery.
Government officials sought to portray yesterday's display of bonhomie as the result of a conciliatory gesture by the President to calm a situation he created after three speeches this week accusing Inkatha of fomenting a rebellion in KwaZulu-Natal.
Supporters of Mr Mandela say he was shooting from the hip on Monday when he first threatened to withhold funds from the province if Inkatha did not stop agitating against the government. He was angry and frustrated by Inkatha's rantings for special regional dispensation. Mr Mandela yesterday said he had accepted Mr Buthelezi's explanation that he had not intended to foment revolt.
But the situation on the ground was still tense and the potential for greater bloodshed remained. One IFP provincial cabinet minister yesterday told foreign journalists to steer clear of "unsafe" rural areas. "People in the countryside are tense and angry and suspicious. It is very dangerous."
No amount of public hand-pumping can hide the fact that unresolved questions still loom over KwaZulu-Natal. Most important is Inkatha's demand for international mediation on a range of issues, including Zulu self-determination and provincial autonomy. Mr Mandela accepted that demand last year to get Inkatha to take part in the April 1994 elections. The ANC, however, now it is in power, believes mediation is unnecessary and that any outstanding issues can be resolved internally.
Sources close to the ANC say the government will continue to refuse to bend on the issue. At the same time, it is unlikely Inkatha will back away.
Political analysts yesterday said sooner or later Mr Mandela will have to stop wavering and confront his rival, or risk looking weak.
In the meantime, however, those hoping for reconciliation are optimistic that yesterday's kiss-and-make-up session might signal happier days ahead.Reuse content