JOHANNESBURG, SEPT. 21 -- Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi today conditionally accepted the African National Congress's invitation to meet its leader, Nelson Mandela, saying he welcomed the chance to help end the township violence wracking South Africa but first wanted to verify that the peace offer was "genuine."
Buthelezi, president of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party as well as chief minister of the nominally self-governing Kwazulu homeland in eastern South Africa, said he "urgently" would seek clarification from Mandela to assure himself that the ANC was genuinely seeking to lessen the violence and bring about peace. The ANC has blamed much of the recent factional fighting on Inkatha.
"If I find that the intentions were genuine, I will certainly go there," Buthelezi said. "But I will go there as president of Inkatha." The ANC announced Thursday that it would convene a meeting of all homeland leaders "to devise a joint strategy for ending the violence and measures to prevent any possible future outbreaks."
Buthelezi's conditional response raised hopes here that South Africa's two main rival black parties, the ANC and Inkatha, were finally on the road to settling their dispute in a compromise widely regarded as essential if further massive bloodletting in the townships is to be avoided.
Buthelezi insisted in his statement that the ANC must deal with him as Inkatha's leader, not a homeland chief minister, and recognize that only his party could help resolve the causes of the violence.
He said he wanted to verify with Mandela that the invitation was not part of a "deliberately strategized attempt to deny me my prime political identity as president of the Inkatha Freedom Party."
Mandela sought today to smooth Buthelezi's ruffled feathers. He said the Zulu leader "was and remains my friend" and added that he was "indebted to him for his friendship and support" during his 27 years in prison.
Despite Buthelezi's provisos, it appeared that the long-delayed meeting between South Africa's two main black leaders -- the first since Mandela's release from prison last February -- was finally in the offing.
While Mandela himself has never opposed it, many within the ANC leadership and rank-and-file have fought strenuously for months to block such a meeting, branding Buthelezi as an "enemy of the people." They argued that any meeting with Mandela would legitimize Buthelezi as a national political leader and enhance his stature.
Thus, the ANC invitation represents a major concession and turnabout in policy toward Buthelezi. Had this happened last spring, many analysts believe, much of the violence over the past two months between ANC and Inkatha fighters in townships near Johannesburg might have been avoided. More than 750 people have died in the current surge of factional fighting.
In an apparent bid to save face, the ANC National Executive Committee issued its invitation to Buthelezi in the form of a general convocation to all homeland leaders to get together. The homelands, created under the apartheid system of racial separation, are areas inside South Africa reserved for black tribes and deemed self-governing and in some cases independent by the white government in an attempt to remove blacks from South Africa proper.
It was this ANC formula of treating Buthelezi on a par with the other nine homeland leaders that apparently rankled him today and led him to qualify his acceptance of the invitation.
The Zulu leader said he would go to the meeting to say the other homeland leaders were in no position to help reduce the violence since their regions had not been involved in the fighting. Buthelezi's Kwazulu homeland is located in Natal province, where thousands of Zulus have died over the past three years in fighting between Inkatha and ANC supporters.
For the peace efforts to succeed, Buthelezi said, "Dr. Mandela and I must get together as respective leaders of the two dominant political organizations involved in the violence."
There are indications that some senior ANC officials recently had begun to believe that dealing directly with Inkatha might be necessary to find a political solution to the violence and set the stage for a meeting between Mandela and Buthelezi.
Wednesday night, a high-ranking ANC delegation met with senior Inkatha officials in Durban to discuss their differences and ways to defuse the violence. The two delegations are to continue their discussions at a meeting next Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the government announced today that starting Tuesday it would impose a curfew between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. on those townships recently devastated by the violence, including Soweto, Thokoza, Katlehong and Vosloorus. Police may detain violators for up to 12 hours and impose fines of up to $400, except on workers who have obtained special passes.
The ANC said today it "totally rejects" the curfew, calling it a "drastic measure" for which there was no longer any need. "The curfew will have the effect of lessening the capacity of the people to hold meetings, build organization and defend themselves from vigilantes," it said, adding, "It gives license to the police to hunt people as if they are game."