JOHANNESBURG -- Nelson Mandela and Mangosuthu Buthelezi, South Africa's most important black political leaders, meet today in a long-awaited summit aimed at easing a bitter rivalry that has cost thousands of lives.
The one-day meeting in the coastal city of Durban will be the first between the two men in nearly 30 years. It has been widely hailed as an overdue gesture that could help cool the fires raging in the country's black townships.
More than 5,000 blacks have died since 1986 in factional fighting between supporters of Mr. Mandela's African National Congress and backers of Mr. Buthelezi's Zulu movement, known as the Inkatha Freedom Party. The fighting escalated last March in Natal province, where Mr. Buthelezi is based, and spread to the Johannesburg area, South Africa's industrial heartland, in July.
"The bloodshed of the past year has left deep scars which will still take time to heal. But at least the healing process has begun," said an editorial Monday in the country's largest black newspaper, the Sowetan. "Talking is better than war."
The township war has threatened to halt the political reform process started a year ago when President F. W. de Klerk released Mr. Mandela from prison and legalized anti-apartheid groups that had been banned for decades.
The ANC and Inkatha, both of which have been willing to talk with the government, have shrunk from talking to each other. Mr. Buthelezi first called for a meeting between the two leaders shortly after Mr. Mandela's release, but ANC activists who have long considered the Zulu chief a sellout to the white-minority government rejected the idea.
In November, when ANC leaders finally agreed to talks, Mr. Buthelezi scoffed at the conditions they set and refused to attend a meeting of black leaders that was to include Mr. Mandela and himself.
The dispute between the ANC and Inkatha goes back decades to Mr. Buthelezi's split from the ANC. It worsened after he decided to accept the top leadership position in the government-designed tribal homeland of KwaZulu.
Relations between the two groups reached their lowest point after Mr. Buthelezi campaigned against the ANC's major tactics in its war against the white government, its 30-year guerrilla campaign and the push for international sanctions.
Today's meeting breaks the logjam between the two groups and gives the negotiating process a nudge, just days before Mr. de Klerk is set to open Parliament with a speech outlining his plans for repeal of the remaining apartheid laws.
Mr. de Klerk's National Party said the meeting could "contribute greatly to expediting the negotiating process." It said the party would like to negotiate with the ANC, Inkatha and other parties as soon as possible.