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Natal: Crucible of South African Democracy

A Zulu boycott in Natal, where a low-grade civil war has brewed for a decade, could damage the credibility of national all-race elections

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THE brutal political power struggle in this deceptively beautiful former British colony - with its lush vegetation and undulating hills - may determine whether South Africa's first all-race elections in April are judged ``free and fair.''

The future of this politically polarized region could also determine whether the South Africa that emerges from the April 27-29 election can maintain its territorial integrity in the face of claims for ethnic Zulu autonomy. The fragmented homeland of KwaZulu - which reflects the region's history of violent conquest, first by the Boers (Afrikaners) in the first half of the 19th century and later by the British - is an integral part of Natal.

Natal Province - to be known as KwaZulu/Natal in the interim constitution - has already endured a decade of low-grade civil war between Zulu supporters of the traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and those who back the more urbanized African National Congress (ANC).

Natal's 7.5 million or so inhabitants - of whom nearly 5 million are Zulus - represent about 20 percent of the country's population. The rest of Natal's population is comprised of about 1 million Indians, 750,000 whites, and 150,000 mixed-race coloreds. In addition, more than 3 million Zulus live outside Natal, mainly in the Johannesburg complex and eastern Transvaal Province.

More than 10,000 people have died in the conflict. During the past three years, political deaths in Natal account for nearly half of all lives claimed in political violence.

Now that the country's first democratic election is approaching, fears are mounting that an Inkatha-led boycott of the poll could discredit the election result in Natal to such a degree that it would cast doubt over the national poll.

Two recent massacres of ANC supporters have jolted diplomats and election monitors. On Feb. 19, 15 youths were gunned down in a half-way house at Creighton, a small village near Ixopo near Natal. On March 6, 11 people were gunned down in Bhambayi, a crowded squatter area near Durban with a long history of conflict between IFP and ANC supporters.

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