POLITICS : Fearing ANC, Whites Turn to Inkatha : Zulu leader Buthelezi, long the odd man out in South Africa talks, gains clout with defections.


It was a strange afternoon, by anyone’s estimation. On a rural rugby field, white Afrikaners were grilling red meat on a smoky braai, or barbecue, as their ancestors have done for four centuries. Nearby, young Zulus performed traditional dances to the beat of cattle-skin drums.

And filling the stands were 5,000 Zulu and 300 Afrikaner supporters of Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi. One of the Afrikaners even came dressed for the occasion in full Zulu regalia.

Buthelezi staged the gathering last weekend in Vryheid, a conservative white town on the edge of the ancient Zulu-Afrikaner battlefields, to celebrate the defection of “three sons of Africa"--two whites and one Indian member of Parliament--to his Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

As South Africa’s halting march toward democracy resumes today with planning talks likely to lead to a new date for multi-party negotiations, Buthelezi and Inkatha remain the most complex, least understood and, many say, most dangerous of the nation’s political forces.


They are deeply respected by right-wing whites but feared and hated by many in Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, with whom they have been locked in mortal combat for six years in Natal province.

And their alliance with President Frederik W. de Klerk’s government has been sorely tested in recent months. The white-minority government, seeing Inkatha as a moderate black answer to the more radical and more powerful ANC, had long considered Buthelezi a friend.

But Buthelezi is a deeply suspicious man with a thin skin and a quick temper. And his relationship with De Klerk has deteriorated since September, when, miffed by a government-ANC agreement to resume their negotiations, Buthelezi broke off contact with the government.

The low point came in January, when Inkatha accused the government of making secret deals to share power with the ANC.

In fact, the ANC has no secret alliance with the government. The two sides have been trying, in a series of closed-door meetings, to speed up the negotiation process by clearing away obstacles that remain between them.

But Buthelezi has reason to worry. The ANC and the government are the most important forces in the multi-party constitutional talks, and if they do not agree, negotiations will almost certainly fail.

When negotiations do resume, Buthelezi is sure to be at odds with the government and the ANC on a range of issues.

His chief demand is for significant regional autonomy in any future constitution. A strong central government would probably cut deeply into his power base, located primarily in Natal province, where most of Inkatha’s 2.2 million members live.

But the government and the ANC already have agreed on the need for an election, as early as next year, for a constitution-making body. Under their agreement, that body would write a constitution but postpone its implementation for up to five years.

Buthelezi’s desire for regional powers, and his willingness to scuttle the entire negotiations process to get them, is strongly supported by political leaders who share his fear of ANC domination. Among those allies are right-wing whites hoping to create white-controlled provinces and black homeland leaders who want to remain independent.

Buthelezi also has won increasing support from moderate whites worried about the ANC’s left-leaning economic policies and, especially, its alliance with the Communist Party.

Jurie Mentz, a longtime member of De Klerk’s ruling National Party, defected to Inkatha last month after visiting Eastern Europe and seeing the havoc created there by Communist policies.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Mentz said. “The people and the economy had been destroyed. The people’s spirit--their initiative, their will to help themselves--is down. We can’t afford this experiment.”

Mentz, basking in the adulation of his newfound Inkatha friends, said he thinks whites will follow him by the thousands.

“People are starting to realize they must make a choice, and the black leader acceptable to them is Mangosuthu Buthelezi,” he said.