South African Elections: Voting is still a matter of life and death in rural Natal: Karl Maier witnessed the tenacity of Inkatha's stranglehold on the fearful people of Mandini

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HER soft voice was barely audible as she sang a favourite South African tune, 'Too many people are crying', when suddenly the 23-year-old woman declared: 'That song is not allowed around here. If they find that cassette, you can be dead.'

The mother of two children was describing life in communities around the northern Natal town of Mandini, 60 miles north of Durban, where an Orwellian code of political and cultural conduct is enforced by traditional chiefs, or amakhosi, loyal to the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini and the KwaZulu 'homeland' leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

'Too many people are crying' is a song by Blondie Makhene, who before the African National Congress was unbanned in 1990 used his music to support the struggle against apartheid. 'If you have a cassette of that music it is suicide,' said one religious worker. 'It is the same if you have an ANC T-shirt.'

'You cannot talk about Sarafina either,' the young woman said, referring to the world-famous South African musical about politicised schoolchildren who identified with the ANC.

Also banned is any public support of the Kaiser Chiefs, one of South Africa's most popular football clubs, whose sin is to sport the same colours, gold and black, as the ANC.

Even fashionable haircuts - very close at the sides and high at the top - identify a person as a potential ANC supporter among the violent youths working for the local chief, K W Mathaba, and Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, residents of the area said. 'It is like Nazi Germany,' said one human-rights worker.

So palpable was the fear among rural dwellers in the areas around Mandini such as Mangete, Amatikulu and Nyoni, that no one would reveal their names and all pleaded that their identity be disguised. Interviews had to be conducted at the back of shops or in people's homes.

Many rural residents have opted to sleep in the sugarcane fields or the open bush at night for fear that the youths will come knocking at their doors to demand that residents present their Inkatha party cards for inspection. 'I stayed in the bush on 2 April because I had failed to buy a card by the deadline the day before,' said the young woman. 'They said they would kill us if we did not have an IFP card.' The next day she bought one for 10 rand (pounds 2). Her boyfriend was forced by Inkatha to resign from the South African police and join the KwaZulu 'homeland' police, she said.

As the confrontation worsens between Inkatha and the ANC and the government over Chief Buthelezi's decision to boycott the 26-28 April elections, pro-Inkatha Zulu chiefs have sown widespread terror in the rural areas to scare off people from voting. 'We have been told that anybody who votes will be killed,' said a woman whose son was recently beaten by Inkatha youths because of his suspected ANC leanings. 'No one is going to vote around here because Chief Mathaba has said he will send people to watch,' said the younger woman, who said she preferred the National Party of President F W de Klerk.

Mr de Klerk, under strong pressure from the ANC President, Nelson Mandela, declared a state of emergency in Natal and the KwaZulu 'homeland' it surrounds on 31 March and dispatched heavily armed South African Defence Force troops to the region to try to ensure free and fair elections. While the move has won praise in the mainly pro-ANC urban townships outside Durban, there was little sign that it has lifted the climate of fear in the rural areas. 'I would like to vote, so would my boyfriend, but I fear for my children,' she said.

The official death-toll in Natal since the state of emergency was imposed stood at 178 yesterday, although the figure is widely suspected to be a low estimate. 'What gives me a shock is that people all around are dying,' said the religious worker. 'There is no action taken by the police. They just come to collect the corpses.'