A deal appeared imminent after three months in which constitutional progress has been blocked by political violence and what has amounted to a dialogue of the deaf between the country's two main political players.
Sources close to the talks said the main sticking-point after 10 days of bargaining by negotiators was the fate of Robert McBride, an ANC prisoner responsible for a bomb blast six years ago which killed three white people and injured 87. The sources said that a way out of the problem had been found in a proposal for a parole for McBride - in white circles the most notorious ANC prisoner behind bars - and two other, lesser known, ANC guerrillas who also killed whites. A number of ANC guerrillas who killed blacks were released last year.
The track record of government-ANC negotiations shows that the deal could collapse at the last minute but the indications last night were that a substantial number of political prisoners - if not all 400 claimed by the ANC - would be released soon.
If agreement is reached 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 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, the 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 has 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 Inkatha supporters carrying guns.
Dire as the need is for a political solution to be found to the country's problems, the government and the ANC spent all day yesterday 'picking the nits', as a diplomat in Pretoria put it, of a compromise deal.
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 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.'
Mr de Beer described bargaining between the two main players as 'an endless arm-wrestling contest'. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Inkatha leader, had more than arm-wrestling in mind yesterday when he said his people would stop the ANC with 'bare hands'.