JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Thousands of armed Zulu tribesmen converged on a stadium near the violence-plagued township of Soweto yesterday in response to the government's new ban on spears.
Armed with spears, sticks and shields, the Zulus chanted, danced and listened to a special address by their king, who defended the Zulu "traditional weapons" and said more people were killed with assault rifles and hand grenades than with the Zulu weapons.
The rally was held as government officials and church leaders sought unsuccessfully to bring together the warring factions in South Africa's township battles. A government-sponsored "peace conference" over the weekend, boycotted by several black groups, ended in shambles after Zulu leaders rejected an offer of mediation by church officials.
The Zulu rally was billed as a nonpolitical, cultural event by King Goodwill Zwelithini, who came dressed in leopard skins and a lion-tooth necklace. But the king unleashed a sharp verbal attack against the African National Congress, the major political rival of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.
ANC leaders have accused the king's uncle, Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, of promoting violence in the townships in order to damage the ANC's standing among black township residents.
"I say to the ANC let this talk of Zulu cultural weapons being the instruments of death now cease. It is untrue. The call to ban the bearing of cultural weapons by Zulus is an insult to my manhood," King Goodwill told the crowd, estimated at about 40,000.
"I say to the ANC that I am deeply hurt when they raise up the spectacle of Zulus and their Zulu-ness being the cause of violence in South Africa. It is not the carrying of cultural weapons that leads to death and destruction. It is the AK-47 bullets."
The government has banned the carrying of all dangerous weapons, including spears, in townships that have been declared "unrest areas" by the government. But the ANC demands that authorities prohibit the public display of all weapons throughout the country to curb the violence that has claimed thousands of lives over the past year.
The Zulu rally was held just outside Soweto, an official "unrest area," but hundreds of Zulus marched through the township with their weapons after the event in defiance of the ban announced last week.
Most of the factional bloodshed has involved residents of migrant-worker hostels, where men from the countryside live for months at a time without their families. Zulu residents of the hostels have launched major attacks on squatter camps and township residents, saying they were defending themselves against people who wanted to destroy the hostels or who opposed the Zulus.
Many incidents have occurred following Inkatha rallies, but there were no reports of violence after yesterday's gathering. Police in armored tanks escorted hundreds of armed Zulus back to their hostels after the rally as residents stood on street corners and watched the spectacle.
"I've never heard of police allowing any cultural weapons for a black man here in the township," said one observer, who identified himself as a Zulu who does not support Inkatha. "The police didn't allow this until Nelson Mandela was released. I think these police are letting people kill us." Mr. Mandela, an ANC leader, was freed from prison last year.
He said township residents, many of whom are Zulus, did not make a habit of displaying dangerous weapons in public. "It's only at the hostels. I'm not the only Zulu who doesn't like this."