Lawmakers today will take up a controversial plan to grant amnesty to security force members who committed crimes under apartheid.
The African National Congress, which opposes the proposed amnesty and other measures to go before Parliament in Cape Town, planned a demonstration expected to draw 20,000 protesters in the city.
When President Frederik de Klerk called the special session months ago, it appeared the lawmakers' main task would be to approve bills establishing a multiracial interim government. But black-white talks on ending apartheid collapsed in June amid mounting political violence, and political reforms remain stalled.
Nonetheless, the president still wants to move ahead with the amnesty plan, saying it is needed for national reconciliation.
The ANC and other black opposition groups say scores of police officers and soldiers committed crimes under apartheid, including the murder of black activists. They argue that such acts should be prosecuted, or at least documented, before amnesty is considered.
The ANC has said if it comes to power it would repeal any amnesty granted without its consent.
De Klerk has offered concessions in a bid to revive black-white negotiations. He agreed recently to free hundreds of black activists imprisoned for committing politically motivated crimes, including murder.
The moderate Sunday Times, the country's largest circulation newspaper, said the legislative session will be an "acid test" for de Klerk.
"The combination of endemic violence, a sustained economic downturn and his perceived capitulation to the ANC . . . has seen support for Mr. de Klerk plummet," the newspaper said.
The president on Friday apologized for apartheid, the first time a white South African leader has done so.
"Yes, we have made mistakes. Yes, we have often sinned and we don't deny this," de Klerk said. But he again argued apartheid was not intentionally "evil."
Some of de Klerk's supporters, as well as right-wing whites and some conservative blacks, saw his recent moves as caving into ANC demands.
The ANC has agreed to return to political negotiations with the white government. But tensions still run high between the two sides, and other black groups, such as the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, have refused to return to the table.