DOBSONVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA, MAY 1 -- It began as a personal feud in one of South Africa's numerous black workingmen's hostels -- maybe an argument over property or a woman or maybe someone got drunk, local residents say. It ended in the deaths of at least nine people and the certainty of more bloody battles in the spreading warfare between supporters of the African National Congress and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

Until Monday night, this enclave in the sprawling black township of Soweto had been spared the horrors of the political power struggle between Inkatha and the ANC, South Africa's largest black nationalist organization. The precise spark that led to the killings is unclear, but all versions come down to a story of Zulus and Xhosas, members of South Africa's two most prominent tribes, coming to blows again.

The result was that 40 or 50 members of Inkatha -- widely perceived as "the Zulu party" -- went on a murderous rampage in and around the hostel, apparently targeting supporters of the ANC -- sometimes called "the Xhosa party." Police arrived sometime after midnight but did little to restore order, according to local residents and police officials themselves. By then, nine people had died, including one woman.

By mid-morning Tuesday, the counteroffensive had begun, as hundreds of youthful, revenge-seeking ANC supporters mobilized and surrounded several dozen or so Inkatha members still holed up in the otherwise abandoned hostel.

As fitful peace efforts were underway, a group of the ANC youths penetrated the hostel compound and hacked a Zulu nearly to death. A handful of policemen fired birdshot and tear gas to drive the invaders away, and eventually enough police reinforcements arrived to escort the trapped Zulus to the questionable safety of another hostel nearby.

The incident was typical of scores of others taking place these days in South Africa's densely populated industrial heartland as Inkatha seeks to expand its power base to traditional ANC strongholds in the black townships around Johannesburg. At least 70 people have died in the fighting since last weekend, more than 600 since the start of the year and more than 6,000 since the ferocious struggle began five years ago in Natal province, the ancestral Zulu homeland.

ANC leaders charge that the flames of violence are being deliberately fanned by South Africa's white-minority government and "elements" within the state security apparatus. These forces are only too happy, the ANC says, to see Inkatha trying to weaken the ANC, and to make it appear that South Africa's blacks are incapable of governing themselves peacefully.

Pressured by its grass-roots supporters, the ANC has begun forming "self-defense units" to fight back, while Inkatha is establishing "warrior brigades" that often operate from workingmen's hostels, the flashpoints of much of the recent violence.

To be close to employment sites, thousands of single black men live in tiny, cramped rooms at the hostels, which seem to have become Inkatha's bridgeheads in townships long dominated by ANC supporters. The one in this northwest corner of Soweto is simply called No. 2 Hostel and consists of a series of single-story barracks housing about 500 workers from a variety of ethnic groups. The fenced hostel compound is surrounded by small, well kept homes in what is regarded as a middle-class neighborhood.

Watching the bloody ANC reaction to the hostel killings unfold, an observer quickly got the impression that such events develop helter-skelter and that no authority acts to bring them under control until violence breaks out. In the end, No. 2 Hostel stood empty and ravaged with only losers on all sides -- Inkatha, the ANC and the surrounding community.

The absence of any ANC or Inkatha leaders to deal with their followers during the five hours that tensions built to a crisis Tuesday morning was striking. Even more so was the almost casual indifference of policemen who stood by watching as the ugly scene developed. "We're waiting for something to happen," said one smiling white policeman as he sat idly in his patrol wagon. What this particular incident illustrated was how the police, wittingly or not, ended up helping Inkatha by intervening to save its "warriors," and how, in the process, they made more enemies among ANC supporters.

As the standoff lengthened toward noon, police began escorting terrified non-Zulu hostel residents back to their rooms to retrieve their belongings, but outsiders had begun looting other rooms and shops in the compound, as well. An old fin-tailed Chevrolet parked inside the compound was suddenly set ablaze, and youths outside began throwing stones though hostel windows.

A man named Mtembu who identified himself as a leader of the Inkhata warriors said he had no intention of leaving the hostel but that he was trying to prevent more bloodshed. "If I let my men loose, they will kill a lot of residents because a lot of them {the warriors} are just children," he said through an interpreter.

Across the street, more and more pro-ANC youths were gathering and preparing for attack -- performing the toyi-toyi, a traditional dance of defiance, and being anointed with muti, a potion that is supposed to ward off enemy bullets, spears and knives. Other youths were erecting crude barriers of stone and rubble on the roads around the hostel, apparently to prevent police armored cars and vans from helping the trapped Zulus.

Finally, a police colonel reached the scene, and with the help of an ANC party official who had come to see what was going on, "peace talks" between the two sides began. But in the midst of the negotiations, and even as more policemen were arriving, a band of youths broke into the compound and began battling with the Zulus.

Some of the youths fired handguns, prompting the police to respond with shotguns and tear gas. The only visible victim of the brief skirmish was a Zulu who had been struck with an axe and now lay writhing on the ground vomiting blood. His Inkatha colleagues seemed only mildly concerned about his fate, while the police offered no medical attention. A local photographer helped him roll over so he would not swallow the blood, but the wounded man lay there for about two hours before an ambulance arrived to take him away.

Finally, a deal was struck: All Inkatha members would leave the hostel, and the compound would remain empty at least for the night. On Wednesday, it was decided, the two sides would meet again to seek a peaceful resolution. As today came, however, No. 2 Hostel stood a silent, empty, eerie shell with only a few policemen on guard outside. There was no sign of mediators from either side.

About a mile away, meanwhile, Dobsonville's much larger No. 1 Hostel was in turmoil. The evacuated Inkatha members from No. 2 Hostel had gone there to seek protection, and much the same thing as had happened Monday was happening again. Inkatha members were driving all non-Inkatha residents out of their rooms and off the compound, reportedly killing two people and robbing others in the process.

At one point, a brief three-way shootout broke out between police, Inkatha members in the hostel and pro-ANC youths outside, and riot police made a sweep of the compound in search of guns. One victim of the shootout was Abraham Tolo, 59, who happened to be visiting friends at a house across the street. He was killed, the friends said, by a bullet fired from a hostel window.

Asked what had happened, one man said: "We were all standing here by the fence, and this poor man came out with his friend to the gate to go home. Before he could reach the gate, we heard this loud noise -- a bullet from the hostel."

Tolo's body was wrapped in a rug and placed in a nearby squatter's shack until someone could take it to the morgue.