IMBALI, SOUTH AFRICA -- There are killers of all kinds here, and last month they got the Rev. Victor Africander, a black Anglican priest.

"He fall down," said his grandniece Thandekile Angeline, 6, who was with him at the time and was grazed in the head by a bullet. "I wake up him, and he didn't wake up. I shake him. He didn't do nothing."

Many people in this black township outside Pietermaritzburg in Natal province say Africander was allied with the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front, the leading coalition of black anti-apartheid organizations. So, people assume, supporters of Inkatha, a rival black anti-apartheid movement here, must have killed him.

Then killers got Jerome Mncwabe, a black Imbali councilman and Inkatha member. Mncwabe had been implicated in Africander's death. Witnesses said he drove the getaway car. So the people of Imbali assumed the "comrades," as ANC/UDF supporters are called, must have killed him. Then Phillemon Mbhaveni Ngcobo, a taxi driver and neighbor of Mncwabe, was killed. Perhaps it was retaliation, his family said, or maybe a message.

They keep killing, these enemies. They are the Inkatha boys on the one side, as people here call them, and the ANC/UDF boys on the other.

"To live together, aiiee! They can't. They won't. Like we are living now," said Sandile Gabela, 15, last month. "Anything, like playing, like going to church, like sleeping, we haven't got time for it. I want it to be the end."

But it doesn't end. Last week, Sandile's father, Joseph Gula Gabela was killed.

Here, in Imbali and elsewhere in this balmy province of sugar cane fields, Indian Ocean beaches, villages and townships and monuments to Zulu warriors past, normal life has been hijacked by a seemingly endless cycle of violence. No one is safe, not even those who claim neutrality. Some 3,500 people have died in Natal since January 1987.

The fighting here is, in one sense, a war between rival Zulu factions with allegiances to separate anti-apartheid movements, locked in a power struggle over the methods of black liberation and the shape of a new South Africa.

Inkatha is a political movement based in Natal's KwaZulu tribal "homeland" -- one of 10 nominally self-governing areas for South Africa's main black ethnic groups. It has traditionally worked to change the apartheid system from within. The ANC, a larger, more ethnically diverse movement, until recently has opposed apartheid from outside the system, and with arms.

But while some people in Natal do fight over the political positions of these two groups, the violence is about more than politics. It has degenerated into revenge, turf battles, warlordism and thuggery between people who will kill those they believe would kill them.

Blacks with divided allegiances are fighting each other elsewhere in South Africa. But those outbreaks -- usually involving rival supporters of the ANC and the smaller, more radical anti-apartheid group, the Pan Africanist Congress -- generally are sporadic and have not devastated whole regions as the Natal fighting has.

Shortly after his release from 27 years of imprisonment in February, Nelson Mandela, now ANC deputy president, visited Natal and urged those fighting to "take your guns, your knives, your pangas {machetes} and throw them into the sea." But so entrenched is the fighting, and so bitter the invective between the two sides, that Mandela's plea had but a temporary impact.

Many here in South Africa view Natal's violence as a possible portent of the future. As the nation's roughly 30 million blacks sit on the threshold of new freedoms, some wonder if the factional fighting of Natal will spread, threatening the gains they hope will flow from reform.

Some blacks believe that the South African government could have intervened to quell the violence with an earlier, more thorough commitment of police and army troops. According to this theory, the fighting helps the government because the violence perpetuates the impression that black rule would be chaotic and could hinder a speedy, extensive agenda of reform. When President Frederik W. de Klerk lifted the four-year-old state of emergency earlier this month, he did so in every province but Natal, citing the continued violence as the reason.

But the fighting has gone on so long and is rooted in such deep passions that some doubt whether any intervention could have broken the cycle of violence. A Common Cause Divides

The peril that gripped Imbali last month is the norm for many people in Natal. And when such times come, people hunker down. Not even the presence of the government's South African Defense Force troops, which were on patrol on foot and in armored personnel carriers last month in places like Imbali and Mpumalanga, can protect them.

So intense and unpredictable is the violence, even the threat of violence, that it has become routine for families to simply flee. If they stay, they often fill buckets, pots and tubs with water to douse the flames when the gasoline bombs come. They put extra sheets of zinc over their windows, extra wood over the doors, to stop or slow down the bullets.

Activists or fighters of either faction shuttle from house to house so they won't be easy targets for their enemies. One youth hid inside the upholstery in the back of his mother's sofa.

And when dusk signals the coming of night during these times, the streets empty. Not even taxis move about. No children play outside.

In Mpumalanga, near Hammarsdale, row upon row of matchbox houses was burned out and abandoned -- the result, Inkatha represenatives say, of attacks earlier this year by UDF supporters. Inkatha members say that such attacks have created thousands of Inkatha refugees, but they have been absorbed into Inkatha homes, not into refugee camps.

By contrast, thousands of refugees created by Inkatha attacks are living in hospitals, churches and makeshift camps all over the Natal midlands area.

About 5,000 refugees fled to St. Albert's Mission at Esigodini outside Pietermaritzburg, said the Rev. Jabulani Mtolo. Most of them come from Kwamnyandu and Henley, small rural areas in the Edendale Valley that were ravaged last March when thousands of Inkatha impis, or warriors, swept through armed with shotguns, rifles, spears and gasoline bombs.

Among the refugees at St. Albert's were the three Khumalo sisters -- Happiness, 14, Princess, 17, and Doris, 24 -- whose parents did not make it.

"They come and threw the {gasoline} bombs. It's at night," said Princess, who fled the burning hut with her daughter Mhlaba, 1 1/2, her two sisters and her nephew. "But my father and my mother did not run out."

The Inkatha impis attacked, she said, because "they had tried to force people to join them." Her father, like many others in Kwamnyandu, "did not want to join any organization."

Non-Inkatha people in Natal say the seeds of the violence were sown with the South African government's creation of the KwaZulu homeland in 1973 for some of the country's 7 million Zulus and the move in the late 1970s by Inkatha to forcibly recruit members there. People employed by the KwaZulu government were threatened with losing their jobs if they did not join the movement; students were threatened with expulsion from school.

According to this scenario, the fight is Inkatha vs. the people, and both South African and KwaZulu police have been accused of standing by while Inkatha fighters have been at work.

Inkatha supporters say they are fighting only to defend themselves. Inkatha sees 1983 as the start of the conflict. That was the year that the UDF, a nationwide coalition of hundreds of grass-roots groups, was formed and began a massive political organizing drive to reignite the anti-apartheid struggle for the then-banned, jailed and exiled ANC.

Ideological differences between the warring sides go back to the anti-apartheid struggle and quarrels over how it should be fought. The ANC mounted an armed struggle against apartheid in the 1960s to fight a white government that then had no intention of reforming the system. Today, in the aftermath of reforms initiated by de Klerk, the ANC is negotiating with the government on a new constitutional system for the country. It continues to advocate armed struggle, but there is little evidence that it is being waged.

Since its formation in 1975, Inkatha, on the other hand, has advocated peaceful means of fighting apartheid. Its leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, while refusing full independence for his homeland, has over the years worked with the government to try to change the apartheid system. Whites view Buthelezi as more moderate than the ANC leadership, and Buthelezi has not suffered the same persecution as other black leaders.

Although no one has accused Buthelezi of directly ordering Inkatha attacks, his position as president of Inkatha and chief minister of KwaZulu, say his critics, makes him at least indirectly responsible for much of the violence. Buthelezi, they say, never issued orders to his followers to stop the killing when they went on a week-long rampage in March against UDF followers.

Buthelezi denies any personal responsibility for the violent acts of local Inkatha chiefs and supports their right to defend their communities and retaliate against attacks by UDF supporters.

The fighting, said Mtolo of St. Albert's, is not just a result of factionalism. In a country of potentially dramatic change for blacks, most of the leaders in homelands are jumping on the ANC bandwagon. But a few are struggling desperately to maintain the status quo.

Buthelezi, a Western-educated leader, is a special case. He finds himself caught between two worlds. He strongly backed a set of proposals he helped draw up in 1986 for a new regional government based on the idea of power-sharing among Natal's blacks, Indians and whites.

But his Inkatha organization is dominated by tradition-bound local Zulu chiefs who see their power eroding as many of their rural followers move into urban areas and become exposed to modern labor unions and other political movements. It is these chiefs who form Buthelezi's own power base. This has put Buthelezi on the defensive as well and increasingly has made him look like a defender of the old Zulu order.

"The whole system is collapsing," Motolo said, standing on the veranda at his mission. "KwaZulu doesn't want to give a chance to the emerging leaders to express how they feel about this situation, so they suppress it.

"It's just the beginning because . . . it seems wherever you go, people are having the same feeling -- that change has to come. And there are people who don't want change. They want things to stay as they are."

Attacks and Counterattacks

To be a Zulu is to be Inkatha, said Alizinah Shangase, 67, of Mpumalanga, as she sat under a tree with a neighbor, Doreen Mncube. "We are Zululand. All the Zulus are supposed to support Inkatha."

But it is bad here, she said, because of all the fighting. Not even the buses and taxis are running in the town. And many youths no longer go to school.

"The biggest trouble we have now, we have no buses, no taxis, we can't work. These UDF, they hit the buses with stones. They pull the people out of the buses and kill them and hurt the drivers. We have no transport. We can't get to town. We can't do nothing. We are sitting here. We are living hard."

At night, she said, "we close the curtains. We put the zinc over the windows, take the children, put them under the bed and hide in the corner and don't light candles."

As she spoke, troops walked along nearby streets that were the scene of ferocious fighting in February and March and other months stretching back to 1983.

Down the street from where Shangase sat, two matchbox homes had been firebombed and burned. Several other houses had been abandoned by their frightened occupants, including one a few doors down where loud American dance music was playing.

Inside the home were eight youths, ranging from 14 to 20 years old. Two of them, Dennis Luthuli, 20, and Sizwe Ngcobo, 15, said their families had been attacked a few years ago and they had been separated from them ever since.

Luthuli stood to show a nasty scar running from his rib cage, down the middle of his abdomen beyond his waist. The UDF boys, he said, caught him once and cut him open. "It was too terrible," Luthuli said, laughing strangely at such horror.

Luthuli and Ngcobo said they were living in the house. The other youths, however, said they had converged there because there had been rumors of an impending attack on this section of town.

Sfiso Kunene, 18, whose family lives nearby, explained: "The reason why I don't stay at home is because this house is at the edge, and it's easier to defend the families."

"I only come when I hear there is going to be an attack," said Mzikayise Gumede, 20.

"Yes, we are watching out here," said Kunene.

The youths said their weapons were not in the house but were hidden in the tall grass behind it. Bush knives, firearms and knobkerries, or club-like sticks, they said.

"They will not sleep in the house. They will sleep in the grass, and when the UDF come, they hit-hit-hit" in surprise counterattacks, explained Siyanda Nkehle, an Inkatha Institute representative who served as interpreter for the youths. "That is why there are more UDF killed than Inkatha. When they come, they {Inkatha supporters} just rise up and shoot."

The youths gave many reasons for their support of Inkatha, some of which seemed to be contradicted by the fighting they do.

"I joined Inkatha, and I like Inkatha because we are fighting {with non-violent} means against apartheid," said Ngcobo.

Then why, they were asked, were they killing other blacks?

"It has always been the Inkatha policy not to kill a black brother, and myself I don't like it," said Kunene. But when the UDF attacks, he said, they must fight.

On this night, said Jabulani Mthembu, 18, "We'll be fighting for our organization, but we really don't know why there should be such a fight instead of learning and preparing for our future." He told of the death of his grandmother and baby daughter in an attack by UDF supporters in April.

"The problem is that if we stop, we are not sure that the other side will stop, which might mean that our parents will be dead, too."

Violence Stalks a Family

Sipho Gabela, 20, a comrade on the UDF side of the Natal conflict, said he is "clear politically." And in Imbali where he lives, he said, "only a few people are clear politically. It is not them who commit murder."

But murder sometimes is a necessity. And then it is called justice.

Such was his analysis of the death of Jerome Mncwabe, a much-hated Inkatha warlord here who was gunned down last month after being implicated in the death of Africander, the Anglican priest.

Witnesses identified Mncwabe as the driver of the getaway car used in the ambush of Africander. Mncwabe was taken in by police for questioning, as had happened to him a half-dozen other times in other killings, then released.

"So he got his sentence outside, although we cannot advocate that thing to happen," Sipho said. "If there is no maintenance of law, the people take the law in their own hands. . . . They did a good job."

Sipho is a solemn young man who spends most of his time thinking about the anti-apartheid struggle, discussing it with other comrades and also thinking about the struggle against Inkatha and discussing strategy with his fellows.

"I can say that all those people who are Inkatha are my enemies. They have declared me an enemy," said Sipho.

He once was active in the fight against Inkatha -- the defensive fighting, he is quick to say. The comrades started fighting with stones, knives and homemade firearms. But recently, they have been fighting with guns provided, in some cases, by sympathetic policemen, he said.

"If they hear that their area is going to be attacked, those who have arms go to help friends. A person may say to me, 'Go to that policeman for arms,' without saying to too many people I am going to that policeman for arms," Sipho explained.

But Sipho doesn't actively fight anymore. He is a cripple. While jumping a fence to flee police last year, he was shot in the back and neck. Two weeks after his release from the hospital, police returned and beat him. He never fully recovered.

He was unable to graduate from high school last year because, he said, he "was unable to remember answers."

Because Sipho can count both police and Inkatha as his enemies, he does not live at home. Instead, he shuttles between a network of safe houses in the town.

Sipho's mother, Christina Gabela, 54, accepts his absence as necessary if he is to stay alive. This mother of six sons and two daughters says she is not directly involved with the UDF. She is just a mother trying to protect her children.

"Myself, I've got nothing to do with the UDF or Inkatha, myself," she said. "It is because of my son. . . . We are old people. We want to save our children. We made a committee to stand for our children.

"It started in 1985 that the life wasn't good anymore because of the Inkatha people. They chased the children away from school. . . . It was the first time I heard of Sipho in UDF was when they chased him from school. The {township} councillors said they do not want UDF children at school. They say at that meeting if your child is UDF, you must go and build a UDF school.

"Then, after that, they come and broke the house. . . . They were breaking the door, and I said to my husband, 'Just open the door.' At that time, I did not know Sipho was in the sofa."

In 1987, she said, Inkatha people sprayed the house with gunfire, hitting her husband, Joseph Gula Gabela, in the arm and abdomen -- injuries that were not severe -- and leaving a dozen or so bullet holes in the facade of the house.

And last month, Christina Gabela said, the Inkatha boys threatened her. She was sitting in front of one of the Imbali high schools where she sold fat cakes, or dumplings, and pies and fish to the schoolchildren.

"He said, 'I am going to shoot you because you are a mother of the UDF boys,' " she said. She took the threat seriously and changed the location of her business.

Last week, while she was walking to a bus stop in Imbali with her husband, two gunmen jumped out from behind some bushes and fired several shots, hitting Joseph Gabela in the chest and back, killing him instantly.

NEXT: Young leading the old in the struggle

For Sfiso Mthalane and Siya Shabala, above, life in Natal means a chat with a Defense Force soldier. For Thabo Goba, at left, it means knowing your friends have been caught up in bloody factional fighting. Below, for Prudence Zulu, Christobal Mkhize and Khose Mkhize, from left to right, it can be as simple as waiting for clothes to be washed.

Dennis Luthuli, above, was injured in fighting in Mpumalanga. He says his family was attacked a few years ago and he has been separated from them ever since.

Above, Princess Khomalo and her sister, from left, sit in a refugee mission and talk about the death of their parents, whose house was firebombed.

Left, Sipho Gabela, a UDF supporter, moves on crutches from house to house, trying to avoid Inthaka supporters. He was shot last year by police.

Empty homes on a Mpumalanga bear silent testimony to the fighting between UDF and Inkatha supporters that caused residents of the area to flee. People left behind say the homes were occupied mostly by Inkatha supporters.