Johannesburg Rocked by Car Bomb, 70 Hurt

Times Staff Writer

A large car bomb exploded outside a military headquarters in central Johannesburg on Thursday morning, injuring more than 70 people and damaging dozens of downtown buildings.

Although the explosion appeared to be the largest yet in a South African city, there were no fatalities and relatively few serious injuries, according to police. Police said that nonetheless they fear that the outlawed African National Congress is embarking on a campaign of urban terrorism aimed at the country’s white minority.

“Only by the grace of God were dozens and dozens of people not killed here,” Col. Frans Malherbe, a senior police officer, said as he showed newsmen the large crater, more than three feet deep, created by the explosion outside the Witwatersrand regional military headquarters.


“An hour earlier, thousands of office workers were on the street going to work,” he said. “Ten minutes later, there would have been hundreds of children lining up outside the cinema across the road for the morning show.”

Botha Denounces Blast

President Pieter W. Botha denounced the attack as “a dastardly and callous act of terrorism” and reiterated his government’s determination “never to capitulate to terrorism.”

An ANC spokesman in Lusaka, Zambia, where the insurgents have their headquarters, said he could not confirm rebel responsibility for the blast although the ANC has waged a 25-year guerrilla campaign against minority white rule in South Africa. “We are still waiting to hear whether any of our units were involved,” he said.

Gen. Magnus Malan, the South African defense minister, who visited the scene of the blast, warned the ANC and neighboring states, particularly Zambia and Mozambique, that there will be retribution for “a cowardly deed of naked terrorism and violence.”

“Those who continue to give accommodation to terrorists and thus allow the export of revolution to South Africa bring (the situation) in South Africa to a crossroads,” he declared angrily. “They do not keep to the rules of the game. For this reason, I address the so-called front-line states, who have been deaf and blind to our messages concerning permanent facilities for terrorists. . . . I hold their governments responsible for terrorist activities from their territories.”

The explosion also had considerable political impact. The liberal whites who met earlier this month with ANC leaders in Dakar, Senegal, were denounced angrily in Parliament in Cape Town and in government statements that suggested they shared responsibility for the blast.

“By committing this deed, the ANC and its lackeys demonstrated what their answer is to talks and to our efforts to broaden democracy,” Malan declared. “Terrorism has revealed its soul. Its answer is violence and destruction. Those who talk to terrorists and who condone terrorism owe South Africa an answer, specifically the men, women and children who were injured.”

Heard miles away, the explosion rocked buildings throughout downtown Johannesburg, shattered almost all windows within three-block radius and filled the air with thick, acrid smoke.

“I thought we were going to die,” said cafe owner Costa Ginoudis. “It seemed like an earthquake.”

Ronald Mabusa, 29, a messenger, was badly cut as he was hurled through a store window by the shock waves from the blast. Brenda Hope, 33, was sitting at her desk on the sixth floor of a nearby office building when the blast shattered the windows and threw her out of her chair. And Sidney Rosenberg, 59, an American tourist from Brooklyn, was showered with glass up to his ankles as he stepped off an airport bus at his hotel.

“We are damn lucky to be alive,” Piet Kruger, 27, an insurance company actuary, said as paramedics plucked shards of glass from his face and arm at South African Red Cross headquarters, which was one of the most badly damaged buildings in the area. “Had that bomb gone off somewhat earlier or later, there would have been corpses stretched out for more than a block in both directions.”

Sixty-eight people, about half of them black, were treated at nearby hospitals, according to police, but dozens more received first aid at the Red Cross building and other emergency centers at the scene.

Planted in Pickup Truck

Police said that initial investigations suggested that the bomb, planted in a pickup truck parked across the street from the regional military headquarters, contained at least 175 pounds of high explosives and was larger that the 1983 car bomb that killed 19 and wounded more than 200 outside air force headquarters in Pretoria.

“The war has finally come,” said Jeff Locke-Smith, a computer programmer, as he walked through the debris. “Those who think we are playing patsy-cake should look at this. Where we have flower pots, we could just as easily have had people’s bodies.”

The bomb was the 11th to explode in Johannesburg this year, according to police, and it followed a double-car blast that killed four white policemen outside a downtown courthouse in May. Cape Town has been hit by eight smaller explosions this month.