JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A powerful car bomb rocked downtown Johannesburg yesterday, killing nine people and marring the last day of campaigning for South Africa's first nonracial election.
Police said the 10 a.m. blast was caused by nearly 200 pounds of explosives that were either in, or under, a white Audi that practically disappeared in the explosion -- the worst bombing in Johannesburg history. Almost 100 people were injured, at least five of them critically.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion quickly fell on white right-wing extremists, considered the most dangerous of the fringe groups that continue to reject the electoral process. Opposed to black majority rule, they have vowed drastic action before this week's elections.
The bomb heavily damaged the national and regional headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC), which is expected to gain power in the elections, and an office of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Susan Keane, an ANC candidate for the Johannesburg-area regional government was among the fatalities. She was on her way to a meeting at the ANC regional office.
President F. W. de Klerk said in a statement that the three days of historic voting beginning tomorrow would not be affected.
"There is no possibility that radical minorities will be allowed to frustrate the will of the vast majority of the South African people," Mr. de Klerk's statement said. "All they will achieve will be to add to the unnecessary suffering of innocent citizens who have already suffered enough."
Most of the casualties were pedestrians. On any day other than Sunday, hundreds more people probably would have been killed or wounded by the bomb.
The blast left a crater 4 feet deep and 6 feet across in Bree Street, a main east-west thoroughfare with street-level shops and apartments and offices above them. It destroyed storefronts, overturned and demolished cars, set fire to several buildings and shattered windows for several blocks in all directions. Showers of broken glass accounted for many of the injuries.
Water from broken mains flowed down the street after the bombing, and balconies of an economy-class hotel that was across from the blast hung precariously to the building's facade.
The blast was one block from the ANC's national headquarters. The building across the street shielded the bottom half of the 20-story structure, but windows were shattered on the top half -- 10 floors above the street -- scattering papers to the wind, and damaging phone and computer systems.
At the ANC's regional offices, also a block away, the hallways on almost every floor were littered with broken glass.
Police immediately offered a $140,000 reward for information on the bombers, and hundreds of troops guarded the area against looting last night.
About 14 hours after the bombing police received a report of a second bomb in a car parked only blocks away, but it turned out to be a false alarm.
The right wing is thought to have been behind a series of explosions since the beginning of the year. Most of those were in small towns west of Johannesburg, some aimed at political offices, others at power pylons and such. Few injuries have resulted, and the bombing campaign has generally been considered a minor irritant in the days leading up to tomorrow's start of voting.
Indeed, the real target of this bomb may well have been this morning's headlines in South Africa's newspapers as the right-wingers, who have committed themselves to using force to back their demand for a separate state for Afrikaners, seek a widespread acknowledgment of their power to disrupt the election. Zulus got such a recognition three weeks ago when a march through downtown Johannesburg turned into a series of gunbattles that left 53 dead.
Support for right-wing paramilitary groups has declined in recent weeks, but many analysts say die-hard extremists remain. Almost all of them have had military training, and many, who come from the white mine workers union, have learned how to handle explosives while working in gold mines.
Though few think that these groups have the type of support needed to launch a full-scale civil war against a new government, there is the distinct possibility of a long-term program of terrorism -- bombs, perhaps assassinations and other shootings -- much like that conducted by the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.
Yesterday was the last day of political activity as parties are required to refrain from campaigning for the 24 hours before the first votes are cast tomorrow by the elderly, those overseas, in hospitals and other special voters.
Most of the attention of police and others concerned with political violence was focused on Soweto yesterday as Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi closed his brief Inkatha Freedom Party campaign with a rally in a stronghold of the ANC.
There was massive police and military presence outside Orlando Stadium as about 15,000 people, most from area hostels that are home for Zulu migrant workers, listened to music and watched Zulu dancing as they waited for Mr. Buthelezi, who arrived more than an hour late.
Claiming that Inkatha, which came into the election only last week, is much stronger than polls indicate, Mr. Buthelezi attacked the ANC for its violent resistance to apartheid and the National Party for inconsistent policies.
He said those two parties, "in their vicious campaign for support, have unrealistically and unfairly raised the expectations of the masses. What they have failed to take into account are the obvious problems which flow from inflated expectations."
In Soweto, one man was accidentally shot by a gun fired into the air in celebration, and there were reports of two killed by security forces when Inkatha supporters returned to hostels in the township of Tokoza.
Mr. Buthelezi's crowd was about one-fourth the number of people who came to a nearby stadium on Saturday for ANC President Nelson Mandela's final campaign appearance. Celebratory gunfire there drew a sharp rebuke from Mr. Mandela, who emphasized the ANC's commitment to gun control and promised to expel these "criminals" from the party.
In Soweto and in his final appearance before an estimated 100,000 in Durban yesterday, Mr. Mandela was conciliatory. Yesterday, he appealed to skilled whites not to leave the country, trying to allay their fears of a black government.
And on Saturday, after making an appeal for voters from the Indian and mixed-race "colored" communities, he said that he did not care what color the new government was.
"We are not fighting in this country for black majority rule," he said. "We are satisfied with a democratic majority government. If it is all-African, a mixture, or if it is all-white, as long as it is elected through the democratic process, we would be satisfied with that."