MANDINI, South Africa — Near the charred hulks of burned-out homes, up the dirt path from an army patrol, Rhoda Sibiya sat on a rock and carefully signed a commitment to South Africa's young democracy.
The question is whether the document, a voter registration card for local elections scheduled nationwide in November, could also be a death warrant.
"We are not safe here," the 33-year-old textile worker said nervously. "People are being killed almost every day."
Blood is again flowing in this verdant corner of South Africa, in the heart of Zululand. The election of Nelson Mandela as president in April, 1994, and the epochal shift from apartheid to majority rule did not end the bitter power struggle in KwaZulu-Natal province between Mandela's African National Congress and Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party.
Political violence, which fell sharply after the elections, has surged here, with about 100 deaths reported last month, up from 78 in April and 57 in March.
Moreover, almost daily reports of drive-by shootings, revenge slayings and gruesome rural massacres have not only disrupted the country's most populous province, but they have undermined attempts to lure investment, threatened political stability and raised fears about Mandela's personal safety.
Also at stake is whether a viable, broad-based opposition party will develop to challenge the dominant ANC. Inkatha controls the provincial government in KwaZulu-Natal, but it champions Zulu nationalism and is dominated by warlords.
The renewed conflict has been accompanied, if not directly fueled, by a rise in fiery rhetoric and personal invective by Mandela and Buthelezi, the nation's most powerful black leaders. Although Buthelezi still serves as home affairs minister in Mandela's Cabinet, tension between them appears dangerously high.
The war of words erupted in late April, when Buthelezi urged his followers to "rise and revolt" against Mandela's government. He insisted later that he meant only nonviolent resistance, although 21 ANC supporters were gunned down within days.
Mandela angrily accused Buthelezi of sponsoring bloodshed and fomenting rebellion. He threatened to cut government funds to the province, even if that required amending the constitution.
"I don't regard the preservation of the constitution to be more important than saving lives," the president explained, causing another furor.
In subsequent speeches, Mandela complained of a "reign of terror" by Inkatha, blamed the bloodshed on "the leader of the party" personally and vowed to "sideline and even crush all dissident forces," an apparent reference to Buthelezi's party.
More worrisome, perhaps, the shooting war has come dangerously close to the president.
Mandela was hurriedly evacuated in an armored vehicle from an ANC rally outside Durban on May 1 after a volley of shots, reportedly from Inkatha gunmen, left at least six people injured.
On his next visit, on May 20, an armed man was shot and wounded near Mandela during a funeral for 11 ANC supporters gunned down in a massacre. The president then pledged to visit every "no-go zone," Inkatha strongholds where ANC activity is usually resisted with force.
"Those who say I should not go to some places in KwaZulu-Natal are idiots," Mandela proclaimed.
Ziba Jiyane, secretary general of Inkatha, blamed Mandela for inciting violence during his visits. "Everywhere he goes here, he is followed by a trail of blood," Jiyane said in an interview. "The words he uses are quite inflammatory."
Jiyane says Mandela and the ANC are panicking about their chances in the Nov. 1 voting, which will elect local and municipal officials. In fact, the drive to register voters, which ended two weeks ago, was marked by violence and intimidation on both sides.
One reason is that the election directly challenges the influence of traditional Zulu chiefs, most of whom are allied with Inkatha. The chiefs draw their vast power and patronage from Inkatha, and many see democracy as a threat.
Several other factors have added to the tension.
The first is international mediation. In exchange for Buthelezi's agreement to join the election last year, Mandela and then-President Frederik W. de Klerk pledged to submit Inkatha's demands for regional autonomy in KwaZulu-Natal to such mediation.
But Mandela has so far failed to fulfill that promise, saying Inkatha's demands can be met within the representative assembly now drafting a new constitution to replace the interim charter passed in 1993. Inkatha is boycotting the assembly, insisting that Mandela honor his promise.
"We all know international mediation is just a stalling exercise for Inkatha," said Mary de Haas, a social scientist at the University of Natal. "But Mandela has let Buthelezi take the high moral ground."
Mandela, however, has tried to undercut Buthelezi in two ways.