With automatic rifles cocked and the MEC for Community Safety and Liaison Bheki Cele shouting instructions to police to have IFP supporters blocking the road in Nongoma removed, it could very well have been a scene from an action movie.

But the tension was very real in the stand-off between IFP and ANC supporters following the firing of shots at ANC MP Prince Zeblon Zulu and two other occupants of his car in February.

Last month, ANC supporter Bongani Khumalo was shot dead in Nongoma.

The government moved swiftly, saturating Nongoma with a crack task force comprising members of the SAPS national intervention unit, the intelligence units and the army.

The IFP did not take this huge deployment lying down, charging that the police deployed in the area committed acts of brutality against its supporters.

It regarded the deployment of security forces by the ruling party as a bid to intimidate its supporters, and vowed not to given in.

Last week, Ministers of Intelligence Siyabonga Cwele, of Safety and Security Nathi Mthethwa, and of Defence, Charles Nqakula flexed their muscles in a final security assessment of the town.

They announced that, in the breakthrough that followed six weeks of security force deployment in Nongoma, the units had recovered illegal arms, including three AK47s, an R5 rifle, two 303 rifles, a shotgun, 12.9mm pistols and more than 100 rounds of ammunition. Also, six people had been arrested over election-related incidents.

Nongoma and Uundi are under intense scrutiny by security agencies and several teams of local and international election monitors.

As a witness to the tensions earlier this year, my mind replayed a scene 10 years ago when - at the same spot - buses carrying mourners from Durban to the funeral of slain ANC eThekwini councillor Prince Cyril Zulu were stoned by IFP supporters. The battle lines between the IFP and ANC were clearly drawn.

So 10 years later, it was with a sense of déj? vu that I again witnessed the intense struggle to control this region of the province.

Why do these towns remain such hotbeds of political intolerance, and is it worth the effort put in by either party?

At a political level, the ANC - which has been seen as an urban party - is keen to break into these IFP strongholds.

"It is important for the ANC to have a presence here because it has not done well in the past two elections in rural areas," says University of KwaZulu-Natal political analyst Zakhele Ndlovu.

"They want to make inroads here and dispel, once and for all, the perception that there can be no-go areas for a governing party in the province."

For the IFP, says Ndlovu, it is important to retain control of places like Nongoma and Ulundi because it has always done well in these areas.

"If (the IFP) lose these places to the ANC, so go the hopes of remaining a formidable political force in the province, and hopes of winning back the province from the ANC will be dashed," Ndlovu said.

These areas, being in the heartland of the Zulu kingdom, are also seen by both parties as symbolically, culturally and historically important.

Both the IFP and ANC owe their existence to the sons and daughters who once inhabited these culturally rich turfs.

Political analyst Nhlanhla Mtaka, of Ingabadi Communications, notes that as the country goes to the polls today, KwaZulu-Natal is one of two provinces where the ANC does not have outright control.

"One of the contested areas is Nongoma, a remote hilltop town under the Zululand District (Municipality).

"Zululand is a sacred area for Zulu people for many reasons," Mtaka said.

"Politically, the area was home to a number of powerful political figures, including IFP president Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the late Prince Gideon Zulu and Joseph Sikhonde, the fearless IFP leader of the 1990s. This is also the area of the national IFP organiser Albert Mncwango.

"Also, Prince Zeblon Nqama Zulu of Mandlakazi (ANC MP) and the late Prince Mcwayizeni Zulu, a strong supporter of the ANC, were from here."

King Dinizulu of uSuthu, in Nongoma, had no less influence on the lives of founding members of the ANC and the IFP.

When Buthelezi, who spent his youth in one of the Zulu royal palaces scattered across Nongoma, revived Inkatha, he was in a way breathing life into a structure founded as a cultural organisation by King Solomon ka-Dinuzulu in the 1920s.

King Dinuzulu was also consulted about the formation of the ANC and became the life honorary president of the party. Dinuzulu's daughter Harriet married a founder of the ANC, Pixley ka Isaya Seme, who later became the president of the ANC. He is buried near one of the Zulu royal palaces in Nongoma.

This area was once the home of King Zwide, a late 18th-century Ndwandwe monarch who was eventually defeated by Shaka at the beginning of the Mfecane wars.

On 30 March 1883, a Zulu clan, the Mandlakazi under Zibhebhu, defeated the uSuthu - a Zulu clan that supported King Cetshwayo kaMpande - in the Msebe Valley close to Nongoma.

The town itself was established in 1887 with the building of Fort Ivuna by the British as a buffer between the Zulu warring factions.

It was originally called Ndwandwe, but this was later replaced with an earlier name given by the local tribesmen to the sacred area where the town stands, KwaNongoma (place of the diviner or mother of songs).

In June 1888, Nongoma was destroyed by the uSuthu but later rebuilt. The fort was used during the Bhambatha Rebellion of 1906.

According to the Independent Electoral Commission, Ulundi and Nongoma together have about 155 000 registered voters - a figure that, depending on the percentage poll, could translate into close to six seats in the 80-member KwaZulu-Natal legislature.

However, on Wednesday the political battle will be focused on 19 wards, with 95 voting stations in Nongoma; and 24 wards with 117 voting stations in Ulundi.

Nongoma has 75 854 registered voters and Ulundi 79 383.

The two towns are teeming with security forces and local and international election monitors who will have their hands full trying to ensure that the electoral battle at these more than 200 voting stations takes place peacefully.

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