This week's arson attack on the headquarters of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference has left behind charred wreckage – and a deepening mystery. The SACBC yesterday cast doubts on police claims that they had found an "arms cache" – two limpet mines, a hand-grenade and an AK47 magazine – in the conference's Pretoria building, Khanya House.
“There is no doubt mat the objects of destruction found by ourselves and reported to me police were left in the building by the same persons who intended to destroy it," Archbishop George Daniel said in a statement on behalf of the conference yesterday. If this is true, the incident could have been much more serious – if the two limpet mines had exploded, they would have "destroyed the building (and the people sleeping in it) totally", according to Brother Jude Pieterse, SACBC general secretary.
The SACBC statement has raised a number of questions about the incident:
- Why were the limpet mines wrapped in plastic with Afrikaans lettering: "Enkelle rolle” (single rolls)?
- Why did the police tell the SACBC they had only found two limpet mines?
- Why did they and have they still, made no mention to the bishops of the other weapons?
- Why would anyone have stored an arms cache in such an unlikely place – a cupboard in daily use?
- Why has the SACBC not been asked for an explanation for me alleged find in the building?
- Why did Brigadier Leon Mellet of the Ministry of Law and Order say the press had picked the story up “from somewhere” and then phone for confirmation – when the police had in fact issued a statement?
Pieterse’s staff found the mystery package as they were cleaning up the debris after the devastating Wednesday morning fire, and he called the police. “It looked very suspicious. I told people to get out of the building.” He said he called the police who told him they suspected it was a limpet mine and cleared the area. When the police asked him to come back inside the building he enquired what they had found. "They said that they had found these two limpet mines and I asked how they would have been detonated. They said they were enclosed in stable plastic explosives and that the heat from the fire would have ignited the plastic explosives which in turn would have detonated the Limpet mines."
Asked whether it was his understanding that the people who set fire to the building also intended to blow it up, Pieterse answered, "Very very clearly. I can put no other interpretation on it. “The place was absolutely saturated on the ground floor, first floor and second floor with kerosene, paraffin or petrol. There were fuse wires leading out of the building, up the first floor on to the second floor and these limpet mines were clearly placed there in a central position, which if they had gone off would have destroyed the building completely. I can put no other interpretation on it – the intention was to destroy the building completely. “It was a really nasty business, and I reject in the strongest possible terms any insinuations, no matter how veiled, that there were any arms or limpet mines or anything else kept on these premises." He said he had not seen the police statement that limpet mines, hand grenades and magazines for AK47 rifles had been found, but added, "I find it strange that they did not tell me (this) when I was called back into the building and I asked them what had been found."
The SACBC added in its statement that this was not a time for political point-scoring. "Whas has occurred at Khanya House is a tragedy, not only for the Bishops' Conference, but for the country as well -… It is time for all South Africans to realise that violence will not solve the problems of this country." The finding of the explosives was widely reported in the media as the "discovery of an arms cache", with no reference to the probability that the arsonists planted the "cache" in the offices. The sinister implication – that the bishops' offices were a storehouse for illegal explosive devices – followed the pattern set after me devastation of Khotso House, headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, by a bomb in August.
According to reports at that time police were investigating whether a vehicle packed with explosives, parked in the basement of the building, had been the source of the blast. The implication in that case was that the SACC was a depot for car bombs, an insinuation angrily dismissed by SACC officials. The arson and bomb attacks against the SACC and SACBC indicate that the churches — the only groups now able to speak critically of the forthcoming elections – will not escape unscathed from exercising this role. The government has announced a decision not to arrest and charge high-profile church leaders for speaking- on the election boycott, but there is a steep cost attached.
There are not likely to be court cases against the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Allan Boesak, and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. However, there have been continued detentions of lesser known church figures and the destruction-of physical structures which allow the churches to function. The SACC yesterday issued a statement complaining that 14 members of their staff were being held without trial because of their stand on the municipal elections. Generous offers of financial assistance to the Catholic bishops have al- ready come from local and international sources.
Statements condemning the attack have come from, among others, the Canadian secretary of state, Joe Clark, and the African National Congress. A special message of support for the Catholic bishops has also been received from Pope John Paul II. The message was sent through the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Augustino Caseroli, and reiterated the Pope 's appeal for peaceful ways to "resolve the problem connected with the political and racial divisions existing in South Africa".
Cardinal Roger Etchcgaray, the president of the Pontifical Justice and Peace Commission, who recently visited South Africa preparatory to the papal tour, also sent a message, expressing his "heartfelt prayers at (the) news of (the) criminal attack against (the bishops') headquarters. "We are closely united with this courageous episcopate which is seeking to promote justice and reconciliation by peaceful means." Trocaire, the Irish development agency has offered £20,000 to assist and the European Community has also made offers of financial help. *The offices of East London's Unemployed Workers' Union were burnt down yesterday morning. – Thami Mkhwanazi & Carmel Rickard
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.