THE question usually lies beneath the surface in any discussion about black-on-black violence in South Africa: Is the black majority, beset by rivalries, really capable of governing? The overtones are racist. Midway through the '80s most such talk centered on widespread anti-apartheid protests, in which 2,500 South Africans, mostly blacks, were killed.
Now the focus is on the brutal fighting in Natal Province, where the vast majority of the nation's 7 million Zulus live. The struggle is between Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement, rural and tribally based, and the more urban and liberal United Democratic Front (UDF) and its ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions. More than 250 blacks have been killed in the course of the violence since early fall. Several efforts at peace talks have failed.
Chief Buthelezi, who presides over the Zulu ``homeland'' of KwaZulu, insists his foes are allied with the exiled African National Congress (ANC) and committed to violence. The UDF considers Buthelezi a ``puppet'' of government apartheid forces and claims that its members who have refused to join Inkatha have been killed or terrorized.
One African nationalist concern is that Buthelezi and his Zulu forces might, as a last resort, work some kind of secession of Natal from the rest of South Africa, just as Katanga pulled back from the former Belgian Congo.
At issue is not just immediate political control in the region but how to end apartheid and what to replace it with.
The government is delighted to point to violence in Natal as another reason to move slowly in sharing power.
Violence, while certainly not desirable, has accompanied almost every political revolution over the years: Those who have power seldom like to lose it, while those who might gain it tend to compete for the privilege. In South Africa the struggle is further complicated by added social and racial components.
The fighting in Natal is tragic but in no way justifies continued minority rule in South Africa. The longer South Africa takes to realize this, the tougher the eventual transition to majority rule may be.