Zulu resistance grows in new South Africa

Signs of a break-up in post-apartheid society are emerging as old traditions die hard, not least among Zulu and white societies

The Zulu tribesmen and women cowered before their chief. They crawled on their knees in front of a wooden table that served as the bench at his tribal court of justice in a round thatched hut overlooking the green, kraal-dotted hills falling away to the Indian Ocean.

"Photograph and ask all you like," said Chief Boy Mzimela, eighth chief of about 100,000 people in the heart of Zululand, 100 miles north of Durban. "I am not frightened. I will not easily be moved from here."

Chief Mzimela, 41, is, in theory at least, lord of all he surveys. As one of about 300 Zulu chiefs, he is an important outpost of resistance to the new democratic order that President Nelson Mandela's government plans to extend in South Africa's national municipal elections in October.

Those elections will decide the declining fortunes of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, prime minister to the Zulu King and leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, whose brinkmanship nearly derailed last April's presidential and parliamentary elections. Mr Buthelezi and the old-style Zulu chiefs, such as Boy Mzimela, are once again suspicious of national elections and reject Mr Mandela's new order.

The African National Congress has outflanked Mr Buthelezi by neutralising his control of the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelethini. The King is now guarded by the South African army and paid by the central treasury. From April, the chiefs will also receive their monthly stipends from Pretoria.

Violence is again on the rise in KwaZula/Natal; more than 100 people were killed last month. Mike Sutcliffe, a local ANC parliamentarian, and Zulu academics in Natal allege that the upsurge in violence is linked to Mr Buthelezi's desire to frighten the Zulu King back on to his side.

While Chief Mzimela, as a key Buthelezi ally, is often accused of rough oppression of dissidents, he has not escaped unscathed. His cattle are kept in the traditional circle of interlocking branches; but his kraal of light blue huts and a house are protected by a high fence topped with barbed wire. One school near his kraal has been firebombed; another raked with automatic fire.

The chief rejects any need to introduce new local government structures or to impose a nationally controlled rural development plan. "I must be the one to do things to develop," he said. "The structures are already here. There is no need for change. It is democratic, because it originated with God."

Crouching on the floor in front of him, one family brought their annual "tribal fee" payments up to date to obtain a death certificate. A woman in her fifties applied, on her knees, for a site to build an old people's home. They stayed silent as he spoke.

The ANC's left-wing ideologues in townships and countries of exile reject the kow-towing traditions they left behind in the countryside. But some tribespeople fear the idea of paying local rates in cash after a rural economy where debts are usually settled with cattle or services.

"We cannot pay for water, for instance. It's something we take with our women's muscle. And I am the one who must allocate land, build schools and so on," said Chief Mzimela, who roars over Empangeni's earth tracks in a distinctly non- traditional pick-up, stereo blaring.

Mr Buthelezi has pushed the concept of a House of Traditional Leaders, which he may use as a stepping stone to resign from national government and take over the premiership of KwaZula/Natal. He showed his power by convening 200 chiefs on Friday, despite the King's stay-away order. "You cannot predict what Buthelezi will do. But we believe the balance of power has changed," said an official close to Mr Mandela.

Many factors are different from last April. "People do not talk about chiefs, tribalism is a declining social force. People talk about bread, schools, weddings and skirts," said Professor Paulus Zulu. "Now Buthelezi is without the King, he's very much on the defensive. The African National Congress now seems relatively strong vis-a-vis the security forces, and now strong in the police. If this is right, Buthelezi has had it."

Real violence could also prompt Mr Mandela to send in massive force. And many of the quarter of KwaZula/Natal's population that is not Zulu - mostly white and Asian - who saw Mr Buthelezi's Inkatha as a shield against the ANC bugbear a year ago, have changed their opinion in the light of Mr Mandela's record in power.

Rural Zulus remain deeply divided: some divided even within themselves. "We're split 50:50. We have to be loyal to the King, but he must obey Buthelezi," said Welcome Khoza, a Zulu petrol pump attendant.

He respected chiefs but thought they should now be democratically elected. "It seems as though Buthelezi's going down. But he won't go down without a fight."

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