Nelson Mandela and Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, leaders of powerful rival black political groups, are scheduled to meet today for the first time in more than 30 years in the Indian Ocean port city of Durban. And many blacks and whites in South Africa hope that the long-awaited talks can bring peace to townships wracked last year by the worst political violence in the country's history. Battles between supporters of Mandela and Buthelezi have claimed 4,000 lives in Durban's Natal Province since 1986 and nearly 1,000 since August in townships near Johannesburg.
Mandela's African National Congress and Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party are the two most important black-led organizations in South Africa today. Although the ANC has signed up only 300,000 members since it was legalized last year, it is generally regarded as having majority and multiethnic support among South Africa's 28 million blacks. Inkatha, which says it has 1.8 million members, is a predominantly Zulu organization, based in Natal Province.
Inkatha was formed in the mid-1970s in a split with the ANC over two of the congress' primary strategies to end apartheid--international sanctions and guerrilla war. Buthelezi said he opposed apartheid but didn't approve of the ANC's methods. That stand angered ANC supporters but endeared Buthelezi to many liberal white South Africans, Europeans and Americans, who thought the ANC was too radical.
Buthelezi further angered the ANC when he accepted Pretoria's offer to become chief minister of one of South Africa's self-governing black "homelands"--creations which the ANC viewed as attempts by the white government to co-opt black leaders. Today, Buthelezi wields broad political power in the homeland and commands his own police force as well.
During the early 1980s, animosity between Inkatha-supporting Zulus and ANC-supporting Zulus in Natal Province grew. Then, four years ago, it boiled over into factional violence that continued for four years.
The trouble remained confined to Natal Province until last year, when President Frederik W. de Klerk legalized the ANC and dozens of other anti-apartheid organizations. And, to Inkatha's dismay, the ANC quickly emerged as the major player in negotiations with the government.
Buthelezi made repeated requests for a meeting with Mandela, but the ANC was reluctant. Mandela said many of his supporters, who believe Buthelezi has personally been behind attacks on ANC members in Natal Province, "almost throttled me" when he suggested meeting with the Zulu leader.
Then, last July, Inkatha moved to expand on its provincial base. It turned itself into a political party and launched a national recruitment drive, spreading its net into urban areas, including townships surrounding Johannesburg.
No one knows who fired the first shots, but by August Inkatha supporters armed with spears were attacking Johannesburg-area squatter shacks occupied by ANC supporters--and ANC supporters were burning down the worker hostels that were home to many Inkatha supporters. Thousands of homes were destroyed, tens of thousands were injured and hundreds were killed.
Buthelezi claimed that ANC leaders from the Xhosa ethnic group were trying to undermine Zulu nationalism, which became a rallying cry for the Zulu fighters. (The Zulus are the largest single ethnic group in South Africa, accounting for about one in four blacks.) The ANC denied the allegation, pointing out that some of its leaders and many thousands of its supporters were Zulus.
The ANC alleged the police were helping Inkatha, with whom the government has long had a friendly relationship. The police said it wasn't true, but they were powerless to stop the carnage.
The personal relationship between Mandela, 72, and Buthelezi, 62, has roots deep in South African history. Both are members of royal African families--Buthelezi descends from King Shaka, founder of the Zulu nation, and Mandela from the Tembu royal house of the Xhosa ethnic group. Buthelezi remembers Mandela was a frequent visitor in his father's house in the 1940s and 1950s.
Mandela and Buthelezi have remained friendly over the years, and they exchanged letters several times during Mandela's 27 years in prison. Although many in the ANC view Buthelezi as a sellout to the government, he frequently called for Mandela's release and, for several years, had refused to even meet with the government until Mandela was free.
However, on a personal level, Mandela and Buthelezi couldn't be more different. While Mandela is deliberate, diplomatic and slow to anger, Buthelezi is tirelessly energetic, sharp-tongued and short-tempered.
The two men have spoken several times on the telephone in the past year, and leaders of their organizations have been meeting privately in Durban for several months. However, Mandela has said any decision to meet Buthelezi is up to the ANC and is a political matter, not a personal one.