JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Fifty-three people were killed in fierce fighting Wednesday between thousands of feuding Zulu and Pondo tribesmen armed with spears, machetes and homemade guns. It was the worst tribal battle in a decade.
The fighting between 2,000 Zulus and 3,000 Pondos began late Tuesday at Umbumbulu, 20 miles southwest of the Indian Ocean port of Durban, and continued through Christmas Day, according to a police spokesman in Durban.
Hundreds of heavily armed policemen managed to separate the rival groups late Wednesday and bring an uneasy calm to the area, the spokesman said, but the fighting could flare again at any time.
The death toll could rise sharply with the discovery of more bodies on the Umbumbulu hillsides today and the possible deaths of nine critically injured tribesmen who have been hospitalized. More than 500 people were reported wounded in the fighting.
'Grass Was Red'
"There were so many bodies out there that we were literally tripping over them," a police officer said after returning from the scene of the battle. "There was so much blood that the grass wasn't green--it was red."
The battle at Umbumbulu turned Christmas into the bloodiest day in more than a year of political violence that has left at least 1,000 people dead here.
Many of those killed in the clash were hacked to death, dismembered and sometimes beheaded with machetes used for cutting sugar cane, according to police and medical workers who helped gather up the dead and wounded. Others had spears driven through their bodies with such force that they ripped holes in the flesh that were bigger than a fist.
'Ferocity of Battle'
"What is surprising in view of the number of warriors and the ferocity of the battle is that there were not 500 killed," a doctor said after visiting the scene, asking not not to be quoted by name in keeping with local medical policy.
"The gore exceeded anything I have seen on any modern battlefield. There was enough blood for every warrior to have dipped his assegai (spear) in it to avenge whatever they thought they were avenging."
Although the cause of the clash is not certain, it appears to be a continuation of bitter Pondo-Zulu feuding in which at least 39 blacks died in earlier clashes in the Durban area since Nov. 20. Those clashes stem not only from the longstanding rivalries between Zulus, South Africa's largest black tribal grouping, and Xhosa-speaking tribes like the Pondos, but from the current competition between them for jobs and political power.
Four blacks were killed elsewhere in South Africa's continuing strife--three burned to death by other blacks who apparently suspected them of collaborating with South Africa's white minority government and one man who was shot to death by police dispersing a crowd near Paarl in Cape province.
One of those burned to death was beaten and set alight in the street in Guguletu, a black ghetto township outside Cape Town. The two others died when their houses were set on fire--one in Kwamashu, near Durban, and the other at Hanover, in Cape province.
The continued killings brought an impassioned plea for peace from Bishop Desmond Tutu, 1984 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who called in his Christmas sermon for South Africans to work for peace and justice.
"How can we go on like this?" he asked, preaching in Johannesburg's Anglican Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin. "With a state of emergency, soldiers in the (black) townships, tear gas and rubber bullets, people being burned, homes being firebombed, people being intimidated, people being detained without trial.
"Let us work so that Christmas 1986, unlike Christmas 1985, will be one where all of us, black and white, will be able to say indeed that God is with us."
In Cape Town, meanwhile, Winnie Mandela, the wife of imprisoned black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela, described Christmas as "a day of mourning" for South Africa's blacks because of the large number of those killed in the last 16 months.
"Christmas has ceased to have any specific meaning to the oppressed people of this country," she said. "Christmas has become a day of mourning. We have had to mourn and conduct funerals for the victims of apartheid."
After visiting her husband for 40 minutes at Pollsmoor Prison outside the city, she said that it was his hardest Christmas of the 24 he has now spent in prison, serving a life sentence for sabotage, because he has been isolated from other prisoners and kept in the infirmary where he was placed after returning to Pollsmoor from prostate surgery six weeks ago.
"This particular Christmas is far worse than all the other Christmases in prison because he is in solitary confinement under the pretext that he is in the prison hospital," she said. "There is no justification at all to hold him in the prison hospital. He has recovered fully."