Local elections in South Africa's Zulu heartland have strengthened the strongholds of the rival parties that have been fighting for a decade. Political observers say this could either polarize the province or help embryonic peace initiatives.
Provisional results from the June 26 poll in KwaZulu-Natal Province released on July 1 show a comfortable win in rural areas by the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Its rival African National Congress (ANC) swept the cities.
KwaZulu-Natal is the main blight in an otherwise smooth transition to black majority rule since the 1994 all-race elections. About 50 people die monthly in political violence and half-a-million are displaced. The province has some of South Africa's finest game parks, beaches, and ports, but violence has held back potential investment.
With the province split between the rural tribal base of Inkatha and the urban constituency of President Nelson Mandela's ANC, it is still unclear whether an improved climate exists to end the fighting between the two parties that has claimed 14,000 lives over the past decade. Zulus are South Africa's largest tribe.
The ANC, which dominates the national coalition government, is likely to be more conciliatory knowing that it now controls the purse strings of the industrial and highly-populated metropolitan areas, diplomats say.
But Inkatha may feel on the defensive, having miscalculated sorely its electoral strategy in the Zulu province. "It could go either way," said one Western diplomat. "I think much depends on how badly Inkatha sees the election vote. And some warlords may not like seeing their enemies in power in the next town."
Added Jenni Irish, of the Network of Independent Monitors based in Durban: "It is very confusing. On the one hand, both parties acknowledge that they can't obliterate each other, and the elections were a clear sign that both have support. But the elections have polarized support and the rural-urban divide."
What is clear is that Inkatha must do some serious rethinking if it wants to expand beyond its Zulu nationalist support base in the countryside. The poll was a strong signal that Inkatha has no urban base and that it has lost much white and Indian support to independent parties. Inkatha pragmatists are aware that strategists underestimated the party's unpopularity elsewhere.
The ANC, however, performed better this time in the province than it did in national elections in 1994. Due to its sweep of the province's cities, the ANC will now effectively control more than 4 billion rand ($930 million) of the provincial budget versus 78 million rand ($11 million) in the rural Inkatha areas.
The elections came just as senior leaders on both sides in the province were talking in the most serious peace initiative yet. The effort, however, had not yet trickled down to the grassroots, and some violence monitors wonder whether it will now.
Makubetse Sekhonyane, a researcher with the Johannesburg-based Human Rights Committee said the few post-electoral incidents seemed to indicate a certain degree of contentment by both sides with the results.
However, he saw a worrying possibility that "no-go" zones by both sides will be consolidated by the election, as the parties' authority in their strongholds is now officially entrenched. No-go zones are districts which are unsafe for the opposition to travel in.
"The fact is that these no-go areas are now officially confirmed," Mr. Sekhonyane said. "It's going to be more difficult for displaced people to go back to zones they had to flee from. The communities may become even more polarized now."
Everything hinges on Chief Buthelezi, an unpredictable master of brinksmanship not known for his political vision. Buthelezi has largely followed a disruptive approach in the coalition national government, of which he is home affairs minister, such as withdrawing from constitutional talks over demands for a greater autonomy for the province.
Prone to wild statements - just two years ago he was threatening civil war - Buthelezi has calmed down his rhetoric since the National Party, which ruled under apartheid, withdrew from the coalition government, leaving him as senior partner to the ANC.