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South Africa's rival leaders unite in prayer: Spirit of peace may move Zulus to agree to attend talks with foes

IT IS not often that rival candidates go to church together three and a half weeks before an election. Less common is it for two leaders whose supporters are slaughtering each other every day to join in prayers for peace.

Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk, the leading contenders in the elections of 26-28 April, yesterday attended an Easter Sunday service together in the appropriately biblical setting of Zion City before a throng of 1 million congregants. With them was Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, who declared only eight days ago that his conservative Zulu supporters would fight Mr Mandela's African National Congress 'to the finish'.

Also present at the most ecumenical political gathering South Africa has seen were Clarence Makwetu, leader of the radical Pan-Africanist Congress, Zach de Beer of the liberal Demoratic Party and Jerry Mosala of the Azanian People's Organisation.

Whether it was the holiness of the setting that inspired them, or the peace entreaties contained in the sermons, Mr Mandela, Mr de Klerk and Chief Buthelezi announced that they would all be meeting this Friday in the presence of the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, to try to work out a formula to bring an end to political violence and pave the way for free and fair elections.

The meeting will take place against the background of a state of emergency in Natal. On Saturday night the police reported 19 deaths, nine of them members of a family loyal to the ANC.

Mr Mandela told reporters yesterday en route to Zion City that it would take time before sufficient troops were deployed in Natal to bring the violence under control. Referring to the talks later this week, he said: 'The measures which we have taken are both political and security measures. The combination of the two should . . . be able to bring us the result that we seek.'

There is always the possibility, as has happened once already, that either King Goodwill or Chief Buthelezi will change their minds at the last minute and the talks will be called off. There was no question, however, of any of the political leaders present yesterday turning down invitations from Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, head of the all-black Zion Christian Church (known as the ZCC), to attend South Africa's biggest annual religious event.

Zion City, 200 miles north of Johannesburg, is to the ZCC's 2 million faithful what the Vatican is to Roman Catholics. The ZCC is by far the largest of South Africa's 4,000 independent African churches. It is also one of the most conservative, eschewing - in contrast to the liberation-aligned Anglican and Methodist churches - any kind of political engagement.

Blending African, Christian and Jewish traditions, the ZCC frowns on alcohol, tobacco and pork, embraces polygamy and witchcraft, fixes women a rung down the evolutionary ladder and has a fabulously wealthy leader who, half-tribal chieftain and half-pope, demands meek and unquestioning tribute from his flock.

Yesterday's event, at which the political leaders were prohibited from making any political statements, was a celebration of peace and righteousness. Gather a million black people on a mountain-side in Natal and, the chances are, you'll have a bloodbath. God's battalions, gathered without a weapon in sight to listen to Bishop Lekganyane's annual sermon on the mount (assisted by a vast loudspeaker system), put on a display of regimented orderliness that would have put to shame the best-drilled army in the world.

So dispersed was the crowd over an area about a mile square that very few actually saw the political leaders. But the reason why it was politically imperative that all six attended was that they could not be seen, at this time, to be turning down an invitation from a church which offers as massive a sample of the black floating voter population as it is possible to muster in South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG - The South African government would consider delaying regional voting in the Natal- KwaZulu region to bring the Inkatha Freedom Party into the elections, a government source said yesterday, Reuter reports.