UMLAZI, South Africa — Nelson Mandela hit the road Saturday for an important six-day campaign tour, hopping across the strife-torn Natal province to woo voters with praise for the Zulu king and promises of better houses and more jobs.
The African National Congress president, looking fit and rested, led 10,000 supporters on a hilltop here in a song of praise for the Zulu monarch, Goodwill Zwelithini, a political ally of Mandela's archrival, Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi.
"He is not just my leader, he's my king," Mandela declared, speaking beneath a banner reading: "ANC--A Better Life for All." To loud cheers, he added, "We are his subjects."
The forays into Umlazi and Ezakheni were part of a high-profile effort by the ANC to persuade Zulus that the party has deep respect for the traditional Zulu monarch, despite sharp differences with Buthelezi, the king's uncle and leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Those differences between the ANC and Inkatha have been largely responsible for the attacks and counterattacks that have claimed 20,000 lives in the last 10 years in Natal province, including 200 in the last two weeks.
Talks between Buthelezi and the ANC have reached what appears to be an insurmountable impasse. And Buthelezi's decision to boycott the election unless the ANC and government grant autonomy for the KwaZulu homeland has made more bloodshed on the election days likely.
Inkatha claims that the ANC is anti-Zulu, an allegation Mandela has tried to refute with repeated promises that an ANC government would give the Zulu monarchy greater powers and privileges as well as a secure place in the country's new constitution.
On Friday, King Zwelithini met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other church leaders and appealed to his subjects to stop the killings in the province.
On Saturday, Mandela, speaking in the Umlazi stadium where ANC and Inkatha supporters clashed just a few weeks ago, welcomed the king's statement, saying: "It befits a man who belongs to one of the most illustrious royal houses. When he does something good for our nation, we are all behind him."
The large turnouts at the rallies Saturday were a reminder that Mandela, although he is from the Xhosa ethnic group, and the ANC have strong support among Zulus in Natal.
"I'm going to vote, and I'm going to vote for Mandela--nobody else," said Eric Gumede, 25, a teacher from Umlazi who is on strike against Buthelezi's education administration in KwaZulu.
After the election, Gumede said, he is confident that an ANC government will be running the schools.
"Mandela isn't saying he'll fight only for blacks," Gumede said. "He says he'll fight for everyone."
Mandela began the day by climbing atop his Mercedes-Benz in the tiny township of Lamontville, south of Durban, where he was mobbed by nearly 2,000 residents who lined the streets and scaled billboards and trees to catch a glimpse of him.
"I'm very happy indeed to come and greet you," he said, speaking in both Zulu and English. "Although I am 75 years old, and will be 76 next July, whenever I am among you I feel like a young man of 30.
"You are the people who inspire me every day of my life," he added, to loud cheers and chants of "ANC! ANC! ANC!"
As expected, the crowds were strongly pro-ANC.
Police and election monitors kept a low profile, and no incidents of violence were reported.
"Inkatha says the Zulus must not vote, but we are going to vote no matter what they say," said Nompomelela Nzukane, a 29-year-old teacher in Lamontville. "It may take time, but the ANC is going to bring us free education and better schools in KwaZulu."
Meanwhile, President Frederik W. de Klerk chastised the ANC, saying he doubted that it would be able to deliver on promises of reconstruction and development with a program based on "Mickey Mouse economics."
De Klerk was cheered often during his speech in an auditorium south of Johannesburg by the crowd of 4,000, most of whom were mixed-race Colored. Many Coloreds share De Klerk's fear of a powerful ANC government and have sided with the president's National Party in the election.
Although the ANC is expected to win the election, with perhaps 55% of the vote, polls also indicate that the National Party may collect 25%, enough to make De Klerk a deputy president.
De Klerk repeated his claim that the National Party's economic policies are in line with successful countries elsewhere in the world. And he claimed credit for building schools and clinics throughout the country.
"The ANC has, under the guise of democracy, through their aggression, brought misery to millions of black and brown South Africans," he said.
* SOUTHLAND CONNECTION: Local black South Africans prepare for historic vote. B1