ULUNDI, SOUTH AFRICA -- Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose home ground is the bloodiest battlefield in the country, is South Africa's most controversial black nationalist leader today.

Buthelezi's Zulu followers of the Inkatha Movement are locked in a deadly struggle for power and survival with those of the African National Congress here in Natal Province. Peacemakers are in flight or hiding, and local peace committees no longer meet. "Hit squads" from each side knock off the other's most prominent local leaders.

But Buthelezi, who spends most of his time at a mountain redoubt in this remote homeland capital in Natal, stands aloof from the daily death and destruction. The 61-year-old Zulu chief, leader of the nominally self-governing Kwazulu tribal homeland and president of Inkatha, refuses to take any responsibility for the runaway violence, insisting that he preaches only peace and nonviolence and that the ANC is to blame for the bloodshed.

"It's quite simple," Buthelezi said, explaining that the ANC believes it is the de facto "government-in-exile" waiting to take power from South Africa's white establishment. "They have not given up their 'winner-take-all' option, and they see me as an obstacle to that," he said.

Day after day the man the ANC and its allies view as "the enemy of the people" hurls verbal thunderbolts at his defamers through endless communiques over the wires of the South African Press Association, in which he defends his honor, professes his innocence, lambastes his detractors and calls for reconciliation.

It appears that what he wants most is political recognition as a national figure of equal stature to ANC leader Nelson Mandela. Buthelezi's primary quest these days is for a meeting with Mandela.

But, as Buthelezi put it in a recent interview, Mandela's followers "are moving heaven and earth to see that" such a meeting "doesn't happen." They realize that it would strengthen Buthelezi's bid to become a national player in coming negotiations with the white-minority government for a new constitution, expected to create a political system in which the black majority will take part.

Constant attacks from his critics seem to have made Buthelezi sensitive these days, especially when he feels his stature is being questioned.

Asked what role he sees himself playing in the forthcoming negotiating process with the government, he said, "I will play the role that Mandela and I are called to play. I don't have a different role."

According to Buthelezi's version of recent South African history, he was solely responsible for Mandela's release from prison and for persuading the government to open negotiations with black leaders. "The government has come to this position because of me. The government has released Mandela because of me. It's I who released Mandela!" he said.

Challenges to his credibility as the country's main Zulu leader are particularly irritating to him. A month later, he is still smarting over a comment made at the Cape Town Press Club by ANC official Thabo Mbeki, who referred to him and his associates as "people who would claim that they are leaders of 7 million Zulus."

When later histories of the black nationalist struggle here are written, it will be interesting to see how Buthelezi is treated. He has been a highly controversial figure for two decades, plotting an independent course that has infuriated, in turns, the white government and the ANC.

Buthelezi refused to accept the "independence" that South Africa's apartheid strategists wanted to bestow upon his fragmented homeland to remove at one stroke 7 million blacks from South Africa proper. He also rejected any separate talks with the government before Mandela was released. Later, he opposed the ANC's call for economic sanctions against South Africa and derided its armed struggle.

He insists that when he established Inkatha in 1975, he had the blessing of the ANC, which was banned and needed a legal black opposition group to block the government's policy of establishing segregated black homelands. His refusal to accept independence for Kwazulu, he maintains, was instrumental in the failure of the government's homelands policy.

He keeps a letter written by Mandela from jail. It thanks him for his "persistent demand for the unconditional release of prisoners before negotiations start" and expresses hope that "the cordial relations" that existed between the ANC and Inkatha in the 1970s will be restored.

Buthelezi says the roots of today's bitter Natal fighting are in the founding in 1983 of the pro-ANC United Democratic Front, an umbrella coalition of groups opposing the government's apartheid policy of racial separation. The UDC invited all local anti-apartheid groups to join "except Inkatha," Buthelezi said. Two years later, the Congress of South African Trade Unions was established and "the first salvo was an attack on me," he said.

By the early 1980s, Buthelezi was openly campaigning abroad for an end to economic sanctions against South Africa and criticizing the ANC's armed struggle as wrong. This made him look more like an ally of the apartheid government than a black nationalist.

Today, his role is as controversial and ambiguous. While he once took the lead in blocking the government's homelands policy, he has ceded that role to new "progressives" among the 10 homeland leaders, such as Transkei's Brig. Gen. Harrington Holomisa.

Buthelezi's defiance of the ANC could have long-term consequences, such as promoting a future multi-party system in South Africa.

In the short run, his stance could literally change the shape of the constitutional negotiating table. The ANC is pressing to have a rectangular-shaped table -- its delegation alone on one side and President Frederik W. de Klerk's on the other.

Buthelezi, like de Klerk, envisages a round table, with Inkatha and other political parties providing an independent voice in the deliberations.

Buthelezi's position toward the Natal violence remains highly ambiguous. While he calls almost daily for peace and conciliation, he says he can do nothing to prevent violence by his followers.

His Inkatha Movement and his homeland police are widely viewed by ANC supporters, the majority of outside reporters and many neutral figures as a main cause of the problem. Buthelezi said simply that "there are high-ranking members of Inkatha who have been involved in acts of violence in their local situations which has nothing to do {with me}, which is not orchestrated by myself."

Buthelezi dismissed a question whether he could not exert some influence to quell the violence, comparing it to asking British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to stop the killing in Northern Ireland. "What influence can she have over Northern Ireland? That's what you're saying."

After more than 3,000 deaths in Natal, he said, "there is violence and counter-violence, there's retaliation violence, there's revenge violence, there's peremptory violence." So, he said, "the question of my control falls away." Still, said Buthelezi, a meeting with Mandela could have "an effect" of cooling tempers and reducing killing. It would make "a contribution," he said, "but I shouldn't think it would end the violence." Mandela, under extreme pressure from his Natal followers, has changed his tune toward meeting Buthelezi. When he first came out of prison in early February, Mandela was eager to see Buthelezi and hold a joint rally at which the two leaders would appeal for an end to the violence.

Mandela now says such a get-together is "not really crucial" because the underlying cause of the violence is not the ANC-Inkatha struggle but the secret hand of the government, which he says is stoking the flames of black-on-black violence to eliminate as many pro-ANC leaders in Natal as possible.

Asked how he feels about all the personal attacks on him these days, Buthelezi became philosophical. "It's difficult not to be hurt if one is a human being," he said. "But at the same time, if you look at the amount of money that is spent attacking me and the time, one would think that if I was of no consequence they wouldn't spend so much time and resources. It's a backhanded compliment really."