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Buthelezi's Game

SOUTH Africa will stay together despite the desperate ethnic electoral endgame of the Zulus. With much of the rest of South Africa uniting behind Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), the question is how to prevent separatism and ethnic hatreds from further infecting the country.

Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) tried unsuccessfully to disrupt the national elections April 26-28. Yet even if their intimidation tactics make a fair vote in KwaZulu impossible, the ANC is almost certain to govern the region as well as the nation.

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The IFP's last-minute return to the political process notwithstanding, the ANC seems likely to win not just a bare majority, but as much as two-thirds of the total vote. Outside of KwaZulu, divisive rural groupings will command little support, as the recent collapse of Ciskei and the demise of Bophuthatswana demonstrated.

Only the radical black-power Pan-Africanist Congress will draw support in the Eastern Cape and Johannesburg areas away from the ANC. But its battle is to win more than 5 percent of the national vote in order to be represented in parliament.

The ANC always had strong backing among Zulus and in Natal; it has roots going back to 1912, Zulus having been among its most illustrious founders.

Six months ago it became clear through opinion polls and informal sampling that Chief Buthelezi and the IFP had little following nationally, and would do poorly on election day throughout the country.

More recently it became apparent that the IFP would probably lose to the ANC even in Natal, the province of which KwaZulu is a significant part.

Buthelezi demanded constitutional concessions from the government and the ANC, and got them. Yet he still refused to test his party's strength in the election. Now he and his followers appear ready to allow votes to be cast in what he considers his domain.

WHEN the young Buthelezi agreed to lead KwaZulu in the late 1960s, he did so in paradoxical opposition to apartheid. He prevented KwaZulu from opting for bogus independence within South Africa, as did Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, and Venda. In the 1970s, before the Soweto riots signaled the coming destruction of apartheid, he led other homeland leaders in paying homage to Mr. Mandela in jail.

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But he was never a democrat. He dealt harshly with the opposition in KwaZulu, especially the protest of students. His thin-skinned retaliation against critics was well known, as was his determination to become a national leader, not only a regional one.

When the African war for control of the townships of Natal and then the Witwatersrand area became more and more bloody in the mid-1980s, Buthelezi's ambitions overcame his earlier antagonisms to apartheid. The IFP took money and guns covertly from elements of the South African government and police and attacked non-Zulus. It cooperated with the so-called third force of police and military intelligence and destabilized urban South Africa, certainly since 1990.

Buthelezi and his followers, aided and abetted by sections of the government, have been playing a ``Bosnia option.'' This brought the IFP to the constitutional bargaining table. But Buthelezi continued to play an intransigent endgame, ultimately to prevent many Zulus from participating peacefully in elections.

President Frederik de Klerk belatedly called out the army to attempt to keep the peace in Natal, but Zulus continued to kill Zulus for political gain. About 300 Zulus have been dying in fratricidal warfare each month.

Since the IFP and the ANC went to war for political purposes a decade ago some 35,000 have died, surely a tragedy. Equally tragic for the future of the Zulus, South Africa's largest ethnic group, is the potential of new, bitter antagonisms within Natal and within the country as a whole.

King Goodwill Zwelithini, Buthelezi's cousin and the paramount chief of the 9 million-strong Zulus, had demanded a return of Zulu sovereignty. Zulu independence was lost in 1879 to British arms. But this request was a desperate bargaining ploy.

After the ANC's election victory, Mandela and his colleagues must deal with recalcitrant Zulus, as well as with other problems of South Africa's reconstruction. Along with meeting the pent-up material expectations of their followers, creating new educational and professional opportunities, and gaining control of the country's armed forces and police, they will want to re-integrate KwaZulu into an ANC-controlled Natal. Mandela's first post-election test is to do so with finesse. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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