JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The deadly prelude to South Africa's first democratic election took on a new dimension yesterday as a Zulu demonstration degenerated into gun battles that left about 20 people dead and scores wounded in the heart of the country's commercial center.
The center of the fighting was the landscaped two-block-square area in front of the city's library, surrounded by high-rise banks and office buildings.
It was turned into a chaotic nightmare during 20 minutes of gunfire that sent thousands into near-panic and, when they finally departed, left behind at least seven bodies sprawled about the normally tranquil park.
Eight Zulus died outside Shell House, the headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC), shot by ANC security forces after they allegedly tried to storm the building.
Two more Zulus were reported killed at another building that houses the ANC regional offices, also apparently at the hands of ANC security. In neither case did ANC personnel suffer any injuries.
Area hospitals were overwhelmed by the wounded, numbering over 200.
Several Zulus were reported to have died earlier, some when the marchers came under fire as they walked toward Johannesburg.
The Zulus were to gather in front of the library in the morning, then march across town to the headquarters of the Independent Electoral Commission to back calls by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelethini and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, to boycott next month's nonracial elections.
Those elections are widely expected to be won by Nelson Mandela's ANC, which has been fighting an often-violent political turf battle with Inkatha for a decade. That battle has intensified in recent days as the ANC and South African government have pushed for free political activity in KwaZulu, the Zulu homeland run by Mr. Buthelezi.
While Zulus concentrated in the largest numbers at the library yesterday, groups approached the city from all directions throughout the morning and then roamed throughout the downtown area.
Almost all were armed with so-called traditional weapons -- spears, clubs, shields, machetes and the like. Some had guns. Because they were so dispersed, it was impossible to estimate their number, but clearly thousands of Zulus answered the call to march against the elections.
For most of the morning, the violence that accompanied these groups was minor, such as tearing down political posters. There were few broken windows, though the Zulus did occasionally attack blacks who had come to town, defying a call for all blacks to stay away from their jobs.
While police often accompanied the roaming groups, there appeared to be no attempt to control their movements. These actions were in stark contrast to those seen in Durban last Friday when the combination of large numbers of police, barbed wire and peace monitors kept 50,000 ANC marchers under strict control and the march peaceful.
Both the ANC and Inkatha blamed the police for yesterday's violence. Both said they had received reports that the other side would cause trouble, that they told proper authorities and that no action was taken.
First news reports of trouble came the night before as the Zulus arrived by the thousands from their homes in the Natal region to the mainly Zulu hostels in black townships around Johannesburg in preparation for the march. Violence erupted between the Inkatha-supporting Zulus and ANC-aligned township residents.
Yesterday morning, downtown Johannesburg was eerily empty, in part because many businesses were shuttered in anticipation of trouble, and in part because the Zulus enforced their job boycott by attacking taxis and trains, keeping tens of thousands blacks from coming to town.
The first major trouble occurred in front of the ANC's regional offices when ANC forces fired on the marchers. In a statement, the ANC said the Zulus were trying first to get into the building's front doors, then into its garage, precipitating the firing.
Not long after that, a group of Zulus approached Shell House, several blocks away. The ANC said two assaults, led by men carrying AK-47 rifles, were repulsed by warning shots before the security forces fired into the Zulus the third time.
At an afternoon press conference, ANC officials said that, after calls to police during the morning, 10 policemen showed up at Shell House, but left the first time a large group of Zulus approached the building. The Zulu dead lay amid scores of abandoned traditional weapons. The ANC claimed that the dead victims' guns had been taken by fellow marchers, in full view of the police.
It was only minutes after the Shell House shootout that gunfire erupted in front of the library, halfway across downtown. Many reports claimed that shots came from snipers high up in the surrounding buildings but, while police and Zulus spent much of their time firing at these buildings, the presence of snipers was never confirmed. Some said only office workers, looking out at the scene, were behind the windows.
The shooting seemed to start when police tried to move a large group of Zulus from the back of Johannesburg's City Hall, which faces the end of the park opposite the library.
With that, both police and Zulus produced their weapons. Shooting continued, sometimes between Zulus and police, sometimes with both firing upward at the reported snipers.
"There were so many groups of them," one policeman said of the Zulus. "Even if we had had 10,000 police down here, we couldn't have done anything."