JOHANNESBURG -- Despite attempts to launch new peace talks between warring black political factions in South Africa's Natal Province, internecine violence in the townships is escalating, with the death toll in the provincial capital area alone approaching 1,000 in the past two months.
The violence, rooted in a feud between militant young blacks affiliated with the United Democratic Front (UDF) antiapartheid coalition and more conservative Zulu members of Chief Gatsha Mangosuthu Buthelezi's locally powerful Inkatha movement, is the bloodiest in two years of factional fighting in the province.
Although both groups oppose South Africa's policy of racial separation and white minority rule, they differ widely in political philosophy and tactics.
Inkatha opposes economic sanctions against South Africa and advocates negotiations with white leaders in Pretoria. The United Democratic Front, loosely allied with the outlawed African National Congress, has adopted a more militant strategy for unseating the government.
The fighting has wide implications not only for political control of black areas of Natal, but for the future of black-white power sharing in South Africa. Many white conservatives assert that tribal and political rivalries among blacks would make a unitary system of one-man, one-vote untenable and would break up the country.
The causes of the blood feud go back to a territorial struggle that began in Natal more than two years ago with the emergence of UDF-supported youth congresses and the launching of a consumer boycott in the Natal capital, Pietermaritzburg.
Both events were regarded as politically threatening to Inkatha in an area where its support had been strong.
Attacks have become so commonplace that several township families have obtained court orders enjoining leaders of rival political groups from killing them. One of the orders was obtained last week by lawyers for two children, aged 12 and 13, whose mother and sister were killed last month in a raid on their house.
On Jan. 20, gunmen burst into the home of a UDF activist near Durban and killed 12 persons, seven of them children. On Sept. 26 in KwaShange, near Pietermaritzburg, 13 Inkatha supporters aged 14 to 22 were gunned down as they tried to flee a burning house.
On Saturday, police reported five more killings, including that of a 15-year-old whose throat was cut by members of a rival gang. Those deaths followed three killings reported last Thursday in Pietermaritzburg's black township of Ashdown, including one in which a gang of teen-agers stoned a private home and then broke in and fatally stabbed the 30-year-old owner.
The killings continued despite an emotional plea for a truce issued Saturday by newly released African National Congress leader Govan Mbeki, 77, who served 23 years of a life sentence for sabotage and treason.
Mbeki, a former ANC national chairman, offered to mediate between the warring factions, and his offer was immediately accepted by Buthelezi.
If Mbeki follows through on his offer, it would not only thrust him into the center of black politics again but would provide the most promising opportunity yet to bring peace in the townships of Natal.
The United Democratic Front is ideologically close to the African National Congress, and its affiliated antiapartheid groups often adhere to tactical directives issued periodically from ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
Since a resurgence of violence began in September 1984, more than 2,500 people have been killed nationwide, a majority of them in attacks by blacks against other blacks. While many victims have been black town council members and black policemen, the majority have been killed in fighting between rival political groups.
The factional violence has continued despite appeals for a truce by political and religious leaders, including a visit to Pietermaritzburg earlier this month by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel peace laureate.
Leaders of the United Democratic Front and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the largest labor federation, charged last week that Inkatha "warlords" with private armies were largely responsible for the violence and that officials of Buthelezi's 2 million-strong movement were behind the phenomenon.
The labor federation's general secretary, Jay Naidoo, called on Inkatha to discipline its members and "open up space for other organizations to exist and campaign."
In a statement, the United Democratic Front declared, "In order to achieve an end to the violence, it is imperative that we be able to consult freely with our members and all the victims of vigilante violence. This is made very difficult by the activities of Inkatha supporters and is also restricted by the state of emergency."
Inkatha responded that its members are only trying to protect themselves and that it regards vengeance killings as acceptable as long as UDF gangs continue their attacks.
Inkatha has demanded that police stations in the self-governing tribal homeland of KwaZulu, which is in Natal Province, be turned over to the movement so it can protect its members.
Oscar Dhlomo, Inkatha general secretary, said that instead of the UDF making accusations about responsibility, "I would be more interested in seeing the UDF coming to meet with us and discuss the problems together to solve them."
Peace talks between the warring factions have been promised by the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored meetings between township groups to negotiate the appointment of a mediation committee.
The chamber's manager, Paul van Uytrecht, said, "There seems to be no doubt at the leadership level that people from the various parties are serious about sitting down together to discuss means to end the violence."
However, a much-heralded truce signed by the United Democratic Front and Inkatha on Oct. 13 collapsed almost immediately.