The failure of the mediation efforts of Lord Carrington and Henry Kissinger this week was, above all, Chief Buthelezi's failure. They came to find a solution to his problems, to help the African National Congress (ANC) and the government find a political formula sufficiently attractive to accommodate Chief Buthelezi's federal demands, persuade him to call off his supporters' war in Natal and embrace the new democratic order.
But he rejected the lifeline, and scuppered the mediation mission with his impossible demand that a postponement of the election date be contemplated. Now, as Business Day pointed out in its editorial yesterday, he has lost the chance to shape the constitution of the new South Africa. His people will not be in the cabinet and they will not be in parliament after the elections.
'Given the recently malign influence of a man with a potential for greatness, South African politics and the South African economy will be healthier for his eclipse,' Business Day wrote. 'Buthelezi would best serve federalism, Inkatha and the Zulu royalists the security forces will now have to contain by announcing his formal retirement from politics.'
The only alternative is what one of his advisers described on Thursday as 'resistance politics', first with the purpose of sabotaging the elections in Natal/KwaZulu and second to adopt a role similar to that of the ANC in the old days, only this time in opposition to a post-apartheid democratic system.
The question is, does Chief Buthelezi have the capacity to mount such a campaign? And can his conservative Zulu supporters hold the elections to ransom through a campaign of terror?
The European Union observers in South Africa believe not. The EU Election Unit is confident that 65 per cent of the population will be able to vote in safety. Its observers in KwaZulu/Natal concluded that the violence was localised and therefore containable.
The Independent Electoral Commission which is organising the vote, comes to a similar conclusion. Yesterday the IEC said Chief Buthelezi's attempt to block voting in Natal appeared to be failing. Without mentioning Chief Buthelezi or Inkatha by name, IEC officials said commission efforts to ensure free and fair polls had faced threats of violence, non-co-operation on use of schools as voting stations and sabotage of telecommunications facilities. There was 'considerable evidence that there are organised efforts to prevent people who want to vote from doing so', said Gay McDougall of the IEC.
Ms McDougall predicted, however, that the election results would be 'a fair reflection of the intentions and desires of the population'. She praised the 'heroic' efforts by thousands of staff to establish 900 polling stations in the province's 55 districts.
The IEC's upbeat assessment of preparations for the 26-28 April elections in Natal failed, however, to address the biggest impediment to voter turnout - fear. In many rural areas, effectively controlled by Inkatha traditional chiefs known as Amakhosi, residents have been warned that to vote is to risk a death sentence. On Monday, seven workers who were distributing pamphlets of the Transitional Executive Council urging people to vote for 'a better South Africa' were hacked and burnt to death in Ndwedwe, a no-go area north of Durban.
Since President F W de Klerk imposed a state of emergency on Natal and the KwaZulu homeland it surrounds on 31 March, at least 217 people have been killed in a low-intensity civil war between Inkatha and the ANC, which is widely expected to win the election.
A commission official, Dikgang Moseneke, admitted that the IEC had to abandon its goal of setting up voting booths within six miles of the most remote villages. But it was co-operating with the South African Defence Force to ensure that polling would be peaceful. 'I have no reason to believe that anyone will be hurt at a voting station,' Mr Moseneke said.
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