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BLOOD FEUD : Just as South Africa Seems on the Verge of Creating a Democracy, a Black Civil War Threatens to Overwhelm It

June 02, 1991|SCOTT KRAFT | Scott Kraft, The Times' Johannesburg bureau chief, has reported from Africa since 1986.

THE REV. DANNY CHETTY'S SMALL PICKUP SLOWS to a crawl as he reaches a hilltop butcher shop, torched only a few days earlier. The shop's blackened skeleton marks the last outpost of the African National Congress and the beginning of the frontier controlled by the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Then, the small pastor, a 32-year-old Indian whose resistance to apartheid has landed him twice in jail, speaks in a voice suddenly edged with worry.

"From here on," Chetty says, "we're in Inkatha territory." Then he presses on, descending a steep road of packed dirt into the thick, green valley.

It is late morning, cool and moist. A fresh breeze sweeps off the Indian Ocean, clearly visible in the distance. But the road is empty. None of the usual choking dust kicked up by cars and taxis. No African women walking to market or children playing. The only signs of life are anxious black faces drawn to their front windows by the whine of the passing pickup.

Chetty has close ties to the ANC, South Africa's primary black liberation movement. Today he is on a dangerous errand in the local war between the ANC and Inkatha, a rival movement centered among the Zulus, South Africa's largest ethnic group.

He is going to an Inkatha funeral to invite the area's chief to a peace meeting. Chetty had tried to coax other ministers to go along, but a journalist is his only passenger. Even for a man of God, Chetty explains, "this is no-man's land."

Rounding a bend, Chetty comes upon 50 Inkatha men sitting on both sides of the road. As the truck passes, their weapons shimmer in the reedy grass: assegais , or spears, hammered to sharp points with rocks; crude machetes as long as an arm; knobkerries, clubs topped with carved balls the size of alarge fists. Like guards at a gate, the men stare at the truck until it disappears.

A few minutes later, Chetty spots a woman walking alone on the road, a pumpkin balanced on her head. He stops to ask directions, and she climbs into the back. She is going to the funeral, too. The pumpkin is for the grieving family.

When Chetty reaches the single-room church, deep in the valley, a hundred singing mourners already have packed the pews. The dirt floor is covered with white straw, and someone holds a red, green and gold Inkatha flag. Outside, a dozen men take turns with a pickax, chopping a grave from a rocky slope.

High on the hilltop, policemen watch the proceedings through binoculars.

Syvion Ndwalane, the church's 43-year-old priest, lies in a shiny stinkwood casket beneath the candles of his pulpit. The manner of death is written on his face: a blackened puncture on his forehead, from a bullet fired at close range, and a thick slash from forehead to chin, drawn by a sharp knife.

It had happened a week earlier. Ndwalane was riding in a taxi-van that was stopped by ANC-supporting youngsters as it headed for Port Shepstone, the main white town five miles away. The priest was dragged out and murdered, the 15th casualty in the area in less than two weeks.

To the ANC, Syvion Ndwalane (pronounced "in-dwah-LA-nee") was a ruthless Inkatha warlord who was trying to drive ANC leader Nelson Mandela's supporters out of territory that had been controlled by his clan for decades. But to the mourners, Ndwalane was a defender of peace, an archbishop in the Zion Christian Church and a respected community leader.

Now the local chief is speaking of peace to the grieving and the angry in the church, saying they must "cool down their hearts." Laudable though his message is, it is too late. Syvion Ndwalane's death already has been avenged somewhere in the killing fields near Port Shepstone.

Just as South Africa begins to create, for the first time, a democratic home for all its citizens, a blood bath threatens to drown it. Many South Africans now worry that they are following the rest of Africa into continual civil strife.

The damage may already be irreversible. A culture of violence, death and political intolerance is growing, and neither dismantling apartheid nor granting blacks the vote seems powerful enough to arrest it. No less a figure than President Frederik W. de Klerk, probably the most optimistic man in the country, recently admitted that he fears that the next step may be a civil war.

SOUTH AFRICA HAS BEEN A VIOLENT COUNTRY for more than two centuries. Bloody expansionism by the famed Zulu leader Shaka created the Zulu nation, which was slaughtered by a British colonial army that went on to defeat the crusty Dutch-descended white Afrikaner settlers in the Boer War. Since the colonialists have left, the Afrikaners have brutally put down many black uprisings, and tens of thousands have died.

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