SOUTH African cities and towns have been rocked by more than a dozen bomb blasts since Saturday night that have claimed at least 20 lives and injured more than 130 people on the eve of the country's first democratic elections.
The bombs, believed to be the work of white right-wing terrorists bent on disrupting the poll, have targeted taxi stands in industrial towns near Johannesburg and at least four polling stations in far-flung rural towns, mainly in Transvaal Province.
The two biggest explosions, which are responsible for all the deaths and most of those injured, were close to the African National Congress offices in Johannesburg and offices of the ANC-aligned trade union federation, COSATU, in Germiston, an industrial town east of Johannesburg.
The ANC, the liberation group expected to win an outright majority in the election, has called the blasts an attack on the democracy process and urged South Africans to respond to such terror by voting in the election, which takes place tommorrow and Thursday. (Major parties and their platforms, Page 7.)
The car bomb in downtown Johannesburg on Sunday, the worst terrorist attack ever in the city, and the Germiston bomb on Monday have created a climate of intimidation. Political leaders and members of the public contacting radio talk shows have reacted with outrage and increased determination to cast their ballots, but diplomats and peace monitors are concerned the blasts could affect voter turnout.
The Independent Electoral Commission, which is responsible for organizing and certifying the poll, said yesterday that the election would go ahead as planned. Alternative arrangements had already been made for four polling stations wrecked by bomb blasts.
The attacks have occurred six weeks after Gen. Constand Viljoen's right-wing Freedom Front broke ranks with rejectionist right-wing groups like the Conservative Party and the neo-Fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) by signaling that it would take part in the election.
Indications are that the CP and AWB leaderships have been isolated by the country's seemingly inexorable march to democracy, and that the overwhelming majority of right-wing Afrikaners will vote for General Viljoen, who has condemned the bomb attacks.
``These are senseless killings that must be condemned. They serve no purpose toward achieving what we are about to accomplish,'' said Viljoen, who is taking part in the poll to demonstrate support for an Afrikaner homeland. CP leader Ferdi Hartzenberg also condemned the bombings and rejected assumptions that the right wing was responsible.
No organization has claimed responsibility for the blasts. Police questioned a suspect yesterday.
President Frederik de Klerk vowed yesterday to crack down on white extremists. ``We are not going to let the right wing delay this election,'' he told journalists at his office in Cape Town.
Gen. Johan van der Merwe, the South African Police (SAP) commissioner, said yesterday that a breakthrough was expected shortly in the investigations into the bomb blasts. ``I call on all South Africans to unite and assist the SAP in fighting this civil threat to public safety and democracy in our country,'' he said.
The SAP remains committed to combatting terrorism ``tooth and nail and will not fail in its duty to protect the birth of democracy in South Africa,'' he added.
BUT diplomats caution that the government emerging from this week's historic election faces a serious threat from right-wing elements that have rejected the transition to democracy.
``It is difficult to say whether these blasts are the death throes of a desperate white right or the beginning of a terrorist campaign that will become a feature of post-apartheid South Africa,'' says a Western diplomat. ``But we should be careful about concluding that the election is going to solve the right-wing terrorist threat.''
The sudden spate of bomb attacks, after a six-week lull in right-wing terrorism, has dulled the atmosphere of optimism that followed the late entry into the election last week of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party.
South Africans are expressing greater uncertainty and are mourning the death of the innocent bystanders.
Wim Booyse, an expert on the right wing and an analyst for the northern Transvaal Chamber of Commerce, says he was surprised by the size and location of the Johannesburg car bomb.
Although disruption of the election by the right wing was to be expected, he says, ``Sunday's car bomb in Johannesburg falls into the category of terror attacks conducted by the Irish Republican Army and Islamic fundamentalists in Beirut.''
He says the bomb blasts probably were carried out by a small right-wing cell that has access to the arsenals of the security forces, but that probably has a loose central command.