THE long-awaited encounter June 23 between African National Congress President Nelson Mandela and Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi has raised hopes that the two men can restore a relationship of trust. Their supporters have fought an undeclared civil war in South Africa that has killed 15,000 people over the past decade.
A renewed understanding between Mr. Mandela and Chief Buthelezi could help resolve the political violence that pervades this country, break the deadlock at multiparty negotiations critical to formulating a transition to democracy, and prepare the grounds for South Africa's first democratic ballot early next year.
The meeting takes place against the backdrop of nine years of conflict between Zulu supporters of the ANC and Zulus loyal to Buthelezi's more traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The internecine fighting flared up again this month when 38 supporters of the two sides were killed in at least six incidents in Natal Province. The attacks followed the pattern of escalations of violence before major peace meetings.
The persistence of political fighting here, however, tempers the hopes that Mandela and Buthelezi can ease the situation quickly. "It would be unrealistic to expect any immediate impact on the levels of violence in the short-term," says a Western diplomat close to the talks.
The meeting is being chaired by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop Stanley Mogoba, presiding bishop of the Methodist Church in southern Africa, after attempts by a joint ANC/IFP committee to broker the meeting failed.
"I think if the two leaders can publicly rededicate themselves to ending violence, agree on a joint committee to promote peace [and] a freeze on the territorial war, and reach an understanding on the IFP's demand for federalism, the meeting could be judged a success," said Mervyn Frost, a political scientist at the University of Natal in Durban.
A walkout on June 17 by an IFP delegation from the multiparty negotiating forum reflected unresolved tensions between the ANC and the IFP over the powers and functions of regions in a decentralized system of government.
While the ANC has made significant concessions to Buthelezi's insistence on a federal system, the IFP has refused to agree to the date of April 27 next year for the country's first democratic election until the constitutional principles that bind an elected constitution-making body are finalized.
MANDELA is due in the US June 26 to receive jointly the Philadelphia Freedom Award with President Frederik de Klerk on July 4 and for a joint meeting with President Clinton. Mandela is eager to arrive armed with consensus on the election date and agreement on a Transitional Executive Council, which will help rule the country before the election.
Draft legislation in the US Congress would repeal the federal government's remaining economic sanctions against South Africa and promote US investment in the country. But enaction of the bill can occur only if the election date and transitional authority are agreed upon, Western diplomats say.
Before Mandela was freed in February 1990, he and Buthelezi exchanged cordial letters in which they agreed that the first priority was to end the political feud between their followers.
But a summit between the two in January 1991 - which produced a series of peace agreements - failed to reverse levels of violence. By the time the two men met briefly at the signing of the National Peace Accord in September 1991, personal relations between them had deteriorated significantly.
"That relationship has just not been able to survive the hostility between their followers," says Oscar Dhlomo, chairman of the independent Institute for Multi-Party Democracy, who has spoken to both leaders about their relationship with the other. "If they could re-establish that personal trust it would be a major achievement.... All sorts of things could flow from that."