Storm clouds gathered yesterday in Natal province, perennially the scene of South Africa's worst political violence, as the government and the African National Congress (ANC) strove to remove obstacles blocking a summit this weekend between FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.
If agreement is reached, specifically on a key ANC demand for the release of political prisoners, then the hope is that the country's two main political leaders will instill a measure of stability into a constitutional process that is adrift and in danger of sinking.
Sound political leadership is required urgently in Natal, where the long-running conflict between the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party threatens to escalate into all-out war.
The ANC's provincial leadership raised temperatures this week with an announcement that they planned to march on Ulundi, capital of the KwaZulu homeland over which Inkatha exercises one-party control. Although no date has been given for the march and the ANC's national leadership have yet to endorse the decision, the homes of three alleged ANC supporters in Ulundi were burnt down on Wednesday night.
More imminent is a planned Inkatha rally on Sunday in KwaMashu, an ANC stronghold outside Durban. A Johannesburg radio station reported yesterday that residents were already fleeing the township, chased away by gun-toting Inkatha supporters.
Dire as the need is for a political solution to be found to the country's problems, the government and the ANC were still busy yesterday afternoon 'picking the nits', as a diplomat in Pretoria put it, of a compromise deal tentatively agreed by their chief negotiators, Constitutional Development Minister Roelf Meyer and ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa.
In a routine exasperating to South Africans of all political colours, the two men met yesterday morning after their principals failed on Wednesday to ratify an earlier proposal. After the meeting, fresh ideas were put one more time to the principals, the South African cabinet and the ANC's shadow cabinet, the National Working Committee. Both sides were still meeting as night fell.
Sources close to the talks said that one of the main sticking points concerned Robert McBride, an ANC prisoner responsible for a bomb blast six years ago that killed three white people and injured 87. The government, it is understood, seeks to link his release to a general amnesty for criminal offenders on its own side. The ANC says that Mr McBride, who acted on orders from ANC military commanders, qualifies unequivocally as a political prisoner and - given undertakings from the government as long ago as August 1990 - should be released immediately.
One of the few South African political figures allied neither to the government nor to the ANC, the Democratic Party leader, Zach de Beer, spoke for many yesterday afternoon when he said: 'If they release a few prisoners who some people think shouldn't be released this doesn't seem to be important in relation to the vast issues of the future of South Africa with which we are dealing.'