What would the two princes have talked about? Conversation must have turned to the last recorded encounter between members of the British and Zulu royal families, at a luncheon Queen Victoria hosted in 1882 for King Cetshwayo. The Zulu king was defeated by the British Army in 1879, but immortalised in celluloid - in a part played by Chief Buthelezi himself - in the film Zulu. King Cetshwayo, who stayed at a rented house in Kensington, proved enormously popular among Londoners, attracting flocks of sightseers.
If the Zulu warrior myth retains to this day a harmless hold on the minds of certain Britons, it is the legacy of that visit and the preceding war. No less surprising, but far more dangerous, is the degree to which the myth still captivates white South Africans. The latest opinion polls show that Chief Buthelezi enjoys as much - and indeed dramatically growing - support among the white population as he does loathing among the black.
It is all a question of which side of Chief Buthelezi you want to see. Machiavelli, speaking of princes, set out the choice: 'A certain contemporary ruler . . . never preaches anything except peace and good faith; and he is an enemy of both one and the other, and if he had ever honoured either of them he would have lost either his standing or his state many times over.'
A member of F W de Klerk's government, the leading figures of which have finally seen through Chief Buthelezi's pious preaching, recently confided that his greatest fear for the future lay in the prospect of Inkatha and right-wing whites taking up arms in defiance of the new constitutional order. The African National Congress shares that fear. Talk to any leader of the far right, tell him that his people are too outnumbered to impose their undemocratic will on the majority, and he will reply, with a knowing smile, 'The Zulus will do the fighting for us.'
Without 'the Zulus', at least 50 per cent of whom abhor Inkatha, the threat to democracy in South Africa becomes reduced, at worst, to containable levels of sporadic right-wing violence. In such circumstances, the South African miracle will have worked. The miracle, in the teeth of opposition from Chief Buthelezi, is that today the South African government and the ANC, once the bitterest of enemies, are expected to consecrate a historic series of negotiated compromises when they ratify a date for the country's first democratic elections. Mr de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, who will jointly receive a peace award from President Clinton in Philadelphia on 4 July, have achieved a remarkably sane degree of consensus on the need for the country to be run by a government of national unity for five years after the election. It is a deal that the people of Bosnia and the rest of the world's turbulent nations can only marvel at and envy.
Inkatha is South Africa's potential Serb factor. But it is a factor that can be quashed. The degree to which Chief Buthelezi will be in a position, first, to plunge the election campaign into bloody chaos, and second, to lead his warriors into battle - as he threatened last week - against the government of national unity sought by the De Klerk government and the ANC, is in proportion to the support he is able to muster among whites. Alone, without the support of whites
and - by extension - the security forces, the Inkatha threat will be rapidly extinguished.
Why are whites flocking to Inkatha? Because they judge that power in the future will be contested between black political organisations and have decided pragmatically to opt for what they perceive to be Chief Buthelezi's protective mantle.
The ANC, they have been taught to believe, stands for recrimination, restitution, redressal of past injustices. Inkatha, whose leaders like to dress in what one Zulu journalist calls 'the postcard Zulu' style, nostalgically re-enact in white minds an old colonial order where blacks, noble but vanquished warriors in the manner of King Cetshwayo, know their place. Or, at least, may be entrusted not to interfere with white privilege.
Never mind that the majority of the black population knows that, without Inkatha's complicity, the intelligence branches of the security forces would have been unable to unleash on the townships in recent years the worst slaughter the country has seen since the Boer War. Never mind that, after General Joshua Gqozo of the Ciskei homeland ordered his troops to open fire on ANC demonstrators last September, killing 27, Chief Buthelezi held a banquet in the general's honour complete with praise-singers and bare-breasted dancers. Never mind that Chief Buthelezi has now entered into a political alliance with the pro-apartheid Conservative Party against the government and the ANC. He might be a son of a bitch, is a prevailing white view, but he is our son of a bitch.
The truth, as the vast majority of blacks - and some whites - know, is rather different. A National Party MP who once shared in the conventional white wisdom on Chief Buthelezi admitted earlier this month that he had been wrong.
'What we white South Africans have always perceived as the greatest terror is the notion of our country going the tyrannical way of much of the rest of Africa,' he said. 'What I now realise, but not all my colleagues yet do, is that Buthelezi is the classic African despot.' Jonas Savimbi, who went to war when he lost the general election in Angola last year, immediately comes to mind.
The policy of the British government, which did not discourage Prince Charles's meeting with Chief Buthelezi, has been to persist in constructive engagement - not to alienate, but to persuade from within. Much the same goes for the rest of the European Community, the United States, Canada and other Western countries.
As for Mr de Klerk, he dare not antagonise him for fear of losing votes, in the short term, to the right. The ANC, for its part, dispatched a reluctant Mr Mandela yesterday to appease the Inkatha chief, Chamberlain-style, with little prospect of anything other than notching up a small public relations victory.
The question that all these people must ask themselves is whether the time has come to burst the Buthelezi bubble. Everyone knows that the chief is mad, bad and extremely dangerous and that the desperate faith of whites in him reflects the uncertainty of the times.
That faith, and with it the threat to the South African miracle, will evaporate when the truth is exposed. Once white support fades, so will the perception of strength on which his black following rests. All it takes is for sufficient people to declare, in a loud enough voice, that Chief Buthelezi is no democrat, no peace lover, no man of good faith.
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