Johannesburg — South African President Thabo Mbeki was mobbed by scores of opposition Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters, carrying traditional weapons, during a visit to an IFP stronghold in the volatile KwaZulu Natal province on Thursday.
Zulus, carrying assegais (traditional spears) and shields and wearing t-shirts bearing the image of the veteran IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, surged forward surrounding Mbekis presidential convoy. They chanted that they were not afraid of the governing African National Congress (ANC) party.
Mbekis spokesman, Bheki Khumalo, said the Zulu opponents, traditionally IFP supporters, did not get close to Mbekis car which was approaching the small town of Tugela Ferry. Police and security officers had to clear the way for the convoy. There were later reports of another incident when police tried to confiscate a gun from one man.
The president is on a three-day "imbizo," touring KwaZulu Natal, as part of an interactive government programme aimed at putting the countrys political leaders in touch with the people, to discuss policies.
The ANC later released a statement denouncing the protest and called it an attack on Mbekis individual rights. "These actions are a flagrant violation of the right to freedom of movement which all South Africans, including the president, enjoy," the statement said.
"These actions demonstrate a level of political intolerance and contempt for basic rights which has no place in a democratic South Africa," the ANC statement noted.
KwaZulu Natal has a reputation for political violence. Thousands of people were killed in the province ahead of the first non racial elections in South Africa in 1994.
There has already been evidence of tension in the province in the lead up to general elections this year, expected in March or April to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the advent of democracy in South Africa. Mbeki is scheduled to announce the date of the polls on 11 February.
The ANC launched its re-election campaign in KwaZulu Natal earlier this month, pledging to seize power in the province from its IFP political rivals. Observers predict a fierce political contest for control of KwaZulu Natal between the ANC and the IFP and a closely-fought election.
Addressing hundreds of people, including community leaders, inside a large white tent at Tugela Ferry, Mbeki again appealed for peaceful polls in the province, which were free of intimidation. He acknowledged past difficulties between the ANC and the IFP and called for more tolerance. "During the elections, the two parties must agree that they will work in such a way that the people in KwaZulu Natal are able to vote for any party without fear of being intimidated," said Mbeki.
The ANC and the IFP are expected to hold fresh talks next week.