Zulu leader's white adviser hangs on: Chief Buthelezi's speech writer seems likely to keep his job in spite of opposition from within Inkatha, says John Carlin in Johannesburg

WALTER Felgate, Mangosuthu Buthelezi's speech-writer, never smiles in public. Face set in a scowl, he has the nickname 'Rumpelstiltskin' in press circles. For unlike most speechwriters, Mr Felgate, 63, is a prominent South African personality. Outspoken, quoted daily in the media, he may plausibly be described as the voice of the Inkatha Freedom Party, his boss preferring as a rule - even when he meets diplomats in private - to speak from prepared texts.

Mr Felgate is as influential a member of the Inkatha Central Committe as any. A social anthropologist by training, he has been an adviser to Chief Buthelezi since before Inkatha was founded in 1975. When Inkatha opened its membership to all races in 1990, he was the first white person to join. Today he is the embodiment of Inkatha intransigence, the advocate of an all-or-nothing policy which government and African National Congress officials fear might lead to South Africa's ruin.

It is a view shared by some senior Inkatha politicians - and this has prompted Nelson Mandela, F W de Klerk and others obsessed with the riddle, 'How to defuse the Inkatha bomb?', to wonder whether the answer lies within.

It has been an open secret for some months in political circles that a small but significant group of Inkatha officials believe that Mr Felgate and Chief Buthelezi run the party like feudal twins. Joe Matthews, a former Communist, and Frank Mdlalose, Inkatha's national chairman, formally headed the party's negotiating team in multi-party talks until Chief Buthelezi, encouraged by Mr Felgate, decided to pull out.

Time and again, before the withdrawal, Mr Matthews and Mr Mdlalose would make a deal with the ANC and the government only to learn a short while later that Chief Buthelezi had scotched it - often following a telephone conversation with Mr Felgate, who plays the role of the chief's agent at the talks.

For several weeks a move has been afoot inside Inkatha to push Mr Felgate out. In the last few days such feelings have been made known in the form of leaks to the South African press. The thinking of the Inkatha moderates, and this includes some white MPs who recently defected from the Democratic and National parties, is that as long as Mr Felgate has Chief Buthelezi's ear, the prospect of next year's elections being drowned - in a favourite phrase - in blood will remain strong.

Compounding the fears of those in Inkatha who know they have already wrested as many concessions from the ANC and the government as they could reasonably expect is the suspicion that Mr Felgate is, or has been, linked to right-wing elements in the South African intelligence community. But despite Mr Felgate's unpopularity among some of Inkatha's leading lights, it is unlikely that he will fall from grace. At a recent 'summit' between Chief Buthelezi and Mr Mandela, participants were struck by how psychologically in tune the Inkatha leader was with Mr Felgate, how out of tune with another of the participants, Mr Matthews. Chief and speech-writer share a profound mistrust of the ANC, a terror of what the future might hold under a Mandela government.

The theory has been advanced too that Chief Buthelezi is far more likely to trust a white adviser than a black. Black Inkatha leaders pose a potential threat to his standing in a way that Mr Felgate, who can advance no more within a predominantly Zulu organisation, could not.

But the most powerful guarantee that Mr Felgate will retain his unique influence over South African politics is that those sophisticates who oppose him are in a minority within the Inkatha Central Committee. Most members, rural Zulus largely who fear nothing more than the loss of power and privilege that might attend democratic rule, instinctively follow the belligerent line.