The former president FW de Klerk, now a deputy president, yesterday demanded that his former Cabinet member be granted temporary immunity from prosecution. The African National Congress bristled at Mr de Klerk's defence of the accused, saying it implied that the alleged crimes "were an integral part of the official policy of the government of the day."
Commentators compare the envisaged prosecution of General Malan and his comrades to the treason trial of Nelson Mandela in 1963-64 in terms of its legal significance and the impact on the country. "This is the most important political event in South Africa since the [1994 all-race] elections," said Paul Pereira, of the South African Institute of Race Relations, a private research group.
General Malan, indicted by the KwaZulu-Natal provincial attorney-general's office, is to be charged with the hit-squad-style killings of 13 blacks, 11 of them women and children, on 21 January, 1987.
Also facing murder charges are a former defence force chief, Jannie Geldenhuys, a former army chief, Kat Liebenberg, a former military intelligence director, Tieni Groenewald, and seven other senior officers.
While the news was greeted with enthusiasm by anti-apartheid activists and ANC supporters, conservative whites and black opposition groups accused the ANC of political opportunism in the timing of the announcement, just before the first all-race local government elections tomorrow. More worrying than the impact on the polls will be the repercussions on Mr Mandela's government of national unity, which includes Mr de Klerk's National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party of Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
"The issue of Malan's arrest poses the single greatest threat to the government of national unity," said Paul van Zyl, of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, an independent Johannesburg-based think-tank. Mr De Klerk will be in a difficult position if the Malan case goes to trial. He inherited General Malan as defence minister from his predecessor, PW Botha, in 1989 but demoted him to minister for water and forestry because of his confrontational style. None the less, Gen Malan remained in Mr De Klerk's cabinet until 1993.
"The degree of danger to the government depends first on whether the case goes to trial and how much information emerges which might make it difficult for De Klerk to stay in the government," Mr Van Zyl said. "The second question is to what extent can the government of national unity survive without De Klerk."
When he was president, Mr de Klerk granted indemnities to several ANC militants in order to aid negotiations and national reconciliation.
Mr De Klerk wants indemnities granted until the Malan case can be taken up by the Truth Commission, which is expected to start work next year and has the power to grant amnesties to people who committed crimes of a political nature in the apartheid era.
Neither Mr Mandela nor the ANC have indicated how they intend to deal with the situation.