NQUTU, South Africa -- The nine young men gathered around the crude wooden soccer goal in the midst of a vast field hardly seemed imposing, but their presence symbolized a powerful effort by the African National Congress (ANC) to move into one of the last strongholds of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
They were gathered for what was essentially a neighborhood political rally in this rural area of inland northern Natal, the region that has been one of the bloodiest and most contested areas in South Africa.
Only a few months ago, such a public display in this area would have been unthinkable. Natal is the traditional home of the Zulus, the tribe that makes up Inkatha's political base.
Inkatha controls the government of KwaZulu, the Zulu homeland that is dotted around Natal, including this area. Inkatha has jealously defended its turf, calling the ANC the latest in a series of invaders who have sought to dominate the Zulu nation.
And it is a violent rivalry.
The Inkatha supporters defend this land with guns and spears and other weapons; the ANC supporters fight back in kind, for intimidation is a stock in trade of South African politics. The Inkatha-ANC battles are at times purely political, at times traditional Zulu territorial fights, at times inter-clan disputes, often some sort of combination of all three.
From mid-1990, after the ban of the ANC was lifted, to mid-1993, the Human Rights Commission reports that 3,653 people died in political violence in Natal, accounting for almost 40 percent of the deaths from such violence in the country, though the area has less than 25 percent of the country's population. Almost all of that came in ANC-Inkatha fights.
Most of the occupants of the Zulu-and-Inkatha-dominated hostels in black townships near Johannesburg -- seen as the source of many of the conflicts in those areas -- come from Natal. Sometimes fights that begin in Natal are settled in the townships. Sometimes the violence travels the other way.
No matter what the opposition, the ANC, with its decades of battle against apartheid, has an undeniable appeal even to Zulus who hear the song of tribal loyalty often sung by Inkatha's leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
Indeed, Mr. Buthelezi's position as head of the KwaZulu government, while it gives him a base of political power, may actually be working to his disadvantage in the long run. Polls show most blacks consider the April 27 election to be one of liberation, a sort of supercharged throw-the-bums-out vote.
That makes Inkatha's incumbency in KwaZulu a liability. It is perceived as one of the bums, responsible for the rutted roads fTC and lack of services that are the fact of life in KwaZulu.
The polls chronicle the ANC's steady progress, as it first dominated the urban townships around coastal Durban, then pushed out from the central city of Pietermaritzburg into surrounding villages. The latest research gives the ANC 49 percent of the vote in Natal to Inkatha's 34 percent.
This rural, inland part of northern Natal is the last battleground before the vote. This is Big Sky country, where cumulus clouds tower above distant horizons, the broad expanse of endless fields -- green now that the rains have come, dotted with the brown of cattle -- sweeping up to flat-topped mountains.
It is also bloody country, South Africa's equivalent of the land between Washington and Richmond during the Civil War. This is where invading armies moving up from the coast met the inland settlers.
Within a few miles of Nqutu, first the Boers met the Zulus at Blood River in December 1838, then the British fought the Zulus in January 1879, losing at Isandhlwana, winning at Rorke's Drift.
All around are battlefields and besieged cities from the turn-of-the-century war between the British and the Afrikaners who had then settled this land and declared their independence.
"Viva, ANC, viva!" James Mtetwa calls out to the nine men as he drives up to the soccer goal. "Viva," they call back.
Mr. Mtetwa, a minister and businessman who is a top official in the local ANC organization, had just driven down a rutted, bumpy dirt track to address the rally.
"They give the people roads like this and they expect them to vote for them," he said of Inkatha and its KwaZulu government.
A few of the young men got into a pickup with one of the homemade ANC banners and headed off on a drive through this rural settlement, letting the people know that the unknown cars that appeared did not carry Inkatha impis -- the Zulu term for warriors -- but ANC leaders, that it is safe to come to the rally.
It is a message that needs to be delivered. In November, the ANC planned to announce its presence in Nqutu with a major rally, complete with top-name speakers such as Winnie Mandela. Hearing of violence planned by Inkatha, and unable to secure proper security, the ANC called off the rally.