There could be a serious split in the ruling South African National Party, perhaps within days. In spite of desperate attempts to paper over bitter differences between the party's left and right wings, Cabinet ministers and ordinary members of Parliament are frantically canvassing support. Everyone is counting the heads of the people they hope they can rely on -- because of the prospect of a showdown.
It is the most serious crisis of confidence the party's leadership has experienced since a small group of extreme right-wingers, including a Cabinet minister, were driven out of the party's parliamentary caucus 12 years ago.
This time, the threat to party unity seems much greater.
Even a senior Cabinet minister has confided that "things are in a terrible mess."
And the Prime Minister, Pieter W. Botha, made an emotional appeal at the weekend for party unity at a meeting in Cape Town of more than 1,000 party officials.
The confrontation that has suddenly come to a head is between the Prime Minister and the powerful leader of the National Party in the populous and politically powerful Transvaal Province, Dr. Andries Treurnicht (whose name literally means "no sorrow").
He is more generally known as "Dr. No" because of his steadfast refusal to budge from a hard-line interpretation of the National Party's policy of apartheid, or enforced economic, social, and political racial segregation.
In this stand, Dr. Treurnicht broadly reflects Nationalist Afrikaner opinion in the Transvaal Province, which is in many ways seen as the most aggressively racist of all four South African provinces.
Ever since Mr. Botha's election as Prime Minister more than a year ago, he has battled with Dr. Treurnicht, who has perpetually sniped at attempts to change the party's policy.
Two issues have brought his opposition to the Prime Minister into sharp focus.
The first was Dr. Treurnicht's suggestion at public meetings that the disgraced former Minister of Information, Dr. Cornelius Mulder (who was Dr. Treurnicht's equally right-wing predecessor as Transvaal leader of the National Party), could be readmitted in time to the National Party.
His readmission would upset many following the serious financial "irregularities" Dr. Mulder permitted in the department under his control and the fact that he was found to have told a deliberate lie to Parliament about his department's affairs.
The Prime Minister and senior members of the Cabinet immediately made it clear that readmission was impossible -- but without directly attacking fellow Cabinet member Dr. Treurnicht himself.
Then Dr. Treurnicht publicly opposed moves to desegregate sport. He attacked the inclusion of a black team in a school Rugby football competition that previously was for white schools only.
This time Prime Minister Botha reacted angrily and directly. He issued a statement saying that "I cannot associate myself with public statements or behavior which could cause further tension . . . ."
Mr. Botha also summoned Dr. Treurnicht from Parliament for a 20-minute private talk from which Dr. Treurnicht returned tense and white faced.
Mr. Botha followed this with a calculated speech at the weekend attacking right-wing attitudes and politicians who believed they could "play circus" while South Africa faced an extremely dangerous situation.
The question is whether Dr. Treurnicht and his supporters feel they can command enough support to leave the party and go it alone politically. Estimates vary.
It seems that at least 12 National Party members of Parliament might follow Dr. Treurnicht if he decided to resign. Some commentators say as many as 48 might be tempted to leave.
The National Party has an overwhelming majority in Parliament -- 135 seats in a house of 165. But a significant breakaway could produce an important new alignment in South African politics.
This shift is just what the opposition parties, which at present are very small, have been waiting for. The showdown could come at a National Party caucus meeting this week.
But there is still a possibility that the desperate attempts to keep the party together "for the sake of Afrikanerdom" may succeed.