South African Elections: Buthelezi bows to political realities: Zulu chief had no other options than guerrilla war or political oblivion, John Carlin reports from Pretoria

MANGOSUTHU Buthelezi, facing political oblivion, cut his losses yesterday, dropped previously inflexible demands and opted for the novel experiment of submitting his political destiny to the democratic will of the South African electorate.

Government and African National Congress sources admitted being flabbergasted by the degree to which the Inkatha leader had capitulated in the course of the negotiations that began in Pretoria on Monday morning. 'He just rolled over,' an ANC negotiator said. 'He seemed desperate to reach a deal.'

A chasm separates the deal Chief Buthelezi eventually settled for yesterday from what he had been demanding during the past year. In exchange for electoral participation next week he has obtained constitutional guarantees that the Zulu monarchy will be legally accommodated within of the provincial government of KwaZulu/Natal.

That was only one of four preconditions for electoral participation that Chief Buthelezi made at a summit 12 days ago between himself, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, Nelson Mandela and President F W de Klerk. The other three were: lifting of the state of emergency in KwaZulu/Natal; postponement of the election date and amendment of the constitution to extend far greater independence from central government to the provincial governments. None of these demands found a place in yesterday's deal.

The demand Chief Buthelezi has laboured longest to obtain has been the one concerning greater powers for provincial governments. The constitution, he insisted, was not federal. Federal, as he saw it, amounted to granting the nine new provinces that will come into being after the elections de facto self-determination. That was why he felt able to enter into a formal alliance in October last year with the white far right, who were making not dissimilar demands for the establishment of an independent volkstaat.

The establishment of the Freedom Alliance, as it was called before its collapse last month, marked the beginning of the end for the Inkatha leader. Overnight he forfeited the support of the establishment media in South Africa and his erstwhile allies in the West. Foreign and domestic funding for Inkatha started to dry up. Endless rounds of talks with the government and the ANC yielded only frustration.

The routing of the rag-tag armies of the Boer right in Bophuthatswana last month had the immediate effect of persuading the Afrikaner Volksfront leader, Constand Viljoen, to abandon the military option and register a new party, the Freedom Front, to test support for a volkstaat in the elections. The Freedom Alliance promptly dissolved.

Chief Buthelezi had two cards left. First the one he has had for the 10 years that the Zulu war - ANC versus Inkatha - has raged in Natal: terror. And second, his nephew the Zulu king, whom he resurrected after 20 years in the political wilderness and used as the vehicle to stoke the fires of Zulu nationalism.

Effectively Chief Buthelezi was holding the country to ransom: give me what I want or my conservative Zulu supporters will spark such a war, will kill so many ANC Zulus, that it will be impossible to hold free and fair elections in KwaZulu/Natal and impossible to establish a platform for peace and political stability.

The government and the ANC knew very well, besides, that thousands of Inkatha supporters had been receiving rudimentary military training from a white former security policeman in the hills of KwaZulu; that guns were pouring into KwaZulu from Mozambique and elsewhere; that the 'third force' axis between Inkatha and sinister elements in the police and army had not been cracked.

The decision of the Zulu king to stand meekly by his uncle, to support his every political pronouncement and to advise his followers not to vote, helped fan the flames in KwaZulu/Natal. More than 300 died in March. More than 200 have died so far this month.

The one substantial consequence of the otherwise abortive summit 12 days ago was the agreement to invite Lord Carrington and Henry Kissinger to help find Chief Buthelezi's price for peace and electoral participation. That ended in a fiasco last Thursday after Chief Buthelezi insisted, against the two notables' wishes, that postponement of the election should be on their agenda.

Suddenly, at the end of last week, Chief Buthelezi was confronted with some hard choices. If he remained out of the elections, thereby withdrawing himself for the foreseeable future from both government and parliament, he could either retire from politics altogether or set about armed resistance in the manner proposed by some of his hot-headed followers. The thought of running a guerrilla campaign from the Drakensberg mountains with limited funds against the South African army did not, when studied closely, hold many charms.

And then there was the future of the Zulu monarch to consider. King Goodwill had been offered a deal better than he had ever enjoyed during the two decades of his uncle's rule in KwaZulu. Was that going to go up in smoke? Where would his money come from?

According to sources in the Zulu royal family the king decided last week finally to stand up for himself. He confronted Chief Buthelezi, the sources claimed, and asked him those very questions. True or not, the fact is that on Friday the king went on national TV and, without consulting his uncle, subversively called on his followers to abandon war. The very next day Mr Mandela declared at an ANC rally in Natal that he considered himself to be a loyal subject of the king. The king was both charmed and reassured.

Deprived suddenly of the unconditional support of his royal nephew, Chief Buthelezi went into a meeting of the Inkatha central committee on Sunday ready to recommend the time had come to take part in the elections, to accept that the crumbs of democracy might be better than no food at all.

According to numerous polls in the last six months, Inkatha will be fortunate to get 5 per cent of the votes in the national elections.