MPs were expected to vote last night on whether to lift the moratorium, the likelihood being - with Mr de Klerk himself now in favour - that a majority would agree.
With the African National Congress furiously opposed to such a move, however, the indications were that the value of such a vote would be largely symbolic. The Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetsee, said yesterday in introducing the debate that approval of the government motion would not necessarily lead to a lifting of the moratorium. Further consultations would be required with the ANC and parties engaged in multi- party constitutional talks. A 'yes' vote would, he said, send a signal to those bent on crime and political violence.
When Mr de Klerk announced the moratorium on 2 February 1990, the day he ended the ban on the ANC, the purpose was to send a quite different signal: to highlight the government's commitment to ending apartheid and negotiating a democratic political settlement.
Now that such a settlement is close at hand, and right-wing elements both in and out of the government focus more sharply on the perceived horrors of black rule, Mr de Klerk sees a need to reassure anxious whites that he is not giving way to chaos.
The objection of the ANC, its spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said yesterday, is that parliament, an apartheid institution, lacks the political legitimacy and moral right to rule upon such a quintessential life-and- death issue. 'This is a matter for an elected democratic government to address,' Mr Mamoepa said.
As another ANC official noted, the hanging debate has a particular piquancy in South Africa given that the judicial bench is made up, with one exception, of white appointees and almost all the 296 prisoners sitting at present on Death Row are black.
No less outraged was the liberal Democratic Party (DP), the official opposition. The DP justice spokesman, Tony Leon, said: 'We are indulging in a form of mass therapy for MPs which has everything to do with the need to look tough and nothing to do with solving the problems of violence, lawlessness and anarchy which hold our country in their thrall.'