South African Election Guide: Fierce contest in prospect in the kingdom of fear

CHIEF Mangosuthu Buthelezi's late entrance into the election is expected to make the race in Natal province one of the most hotly contested in the country.

An absolute majority is no longer a certainty for the African National Congress, with opinion polls putting its provincial support at between 40 and 50 per cent. Chief Buthelezi's mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party is forecast to win up to 25 per cent, with the National Party running at 15 per cent.

That would raise a possibility of Inkatha and the National Party uniting to deny the ANC control of the provincial assembly, or at least to create a strong opposition. The two parties have a common commitment to free enterprise, as well as long-established ties.

While Chief Buthelezi opposed the National Party's plans in the 1970s to convert the KwaZulu 'homeland' he has governed for the past 20 years into a nominally independent territory, Inkatha joined forces with the government and its security forces in the 1980s to battle the ANC.

Inkatha benefited from support by the National Party government as recently as 1991, when it was revealed that state funds, administered by the Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, were being given to Inkatha to mount rallies to challenge the ANC. Last month an independent commission headed by Justice Richard Goldstone revealed that police generals were co-operating in a gun-running conspiracy to destabilise the ANC.

The National Party's natural constitutency, among white and Indian voters who dominate the provincial economy, might fear an alliance with Inkatha, however. Many have been put off by Chief Buthelezi's increasing emphasis on Zulu nationalism and by the violence practised by his Inkatha supporters against the ANC.

The mainly black townships around Natal's urban centres, such as the port of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, are the ANC's provincial strongholds. They are home to the working class, the unemployed, and to thousands of people who either fled poverty and violence in the Inkatha-controlled countryside or who are descendants of those who sought refuge from the excesses of Zulu kings of decades past.

In fact, while Inkatha is known as the party of South Africa's estimated eight million Zulus, all opinion polls suggest that the ANC is the favourite choice among the country's biggest single ethnic group.

It is in the townships where political violence, mainly between supporters of Inkatha and the ANC, has claimed up to 10,000 lives in the past decade. But often the political tone of the conflict has been superficial at best, with struggles over housing, taxi services and marijuana turning into inter-party rivalry. Chief Buthelezi's decision this week to contest the elections was not expected to dampen that type of violence.

Since Mr de Klerk, under strong pressure from the ANC, declared a state of emergency in Natal and the KwaZulu 'homeland' it surrounds on 31 March, nearly 300 people have died in political violence. Despite the presence of the South African Defence Force, fear will be a common feature of the election.

It is unlikely to disappear in one week, especially since voter education was just beginning in many areas just days before the election. Many people in the townships and the rural areas have been told by their local chiefs and headmen that the indelible ink to be used in the election is in fact a magic potion to reveal whom they voted for.