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Johannesburg - The ANC was forced to evacuate its national headquarters on Tuesday night after a bomb exploded in the reception area and the ensuing flames threatened to trap party officials on the floors above.
It was the quick response of the security guards at Chief Albert Luthuli House, said ANC national spokesman Jackson Mthembu, that prevented the building from burning down.
They used extinguishers to douse the fire.
Mthembu was in a meeting on the 11th floor when the explosion happened at about 6pm.
After the fire had been extinguished, he came down to reception to see the damage.
“There was a lot of smoke and a smell of something chemical,” he said.
“The security guards told us the flames were so high that they were touching the ceiling.”
The smoke was white, he said.
Provincial executive member Ignatius Jacobs was in a meeting on the fifth floor and said there was smoke throughout the building.
Lying in front of the burnt couch in the reception area of the offices in Sauer Street, across the road from The Star’s offices, were shards of a Stoney ginger beer bottle that Mthembu believes contained the explosive device.
A glass window was broken.
On Tuesday night, SAPS spokesman Brigadier Neville Malila said the police were investigating a case of arson.
“It appears that this was an attempt to destabilise the ANC at this important time,” Mthembu said.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who arrived at the party’s headquarters about an hour after the blaze broke out, called the incident serious.
Mthembu said they would need to beef up security.
Malila said the police were notified at 6.30pm, and within minutes had cordoned off Sauer Street.
Police sniffer dogs were sent in to sweep the building for other possible devices. They did not find anything.
Also on the scene were forensic and ballistic experts.
“There was an explosive device under the sofa,” said Malila.
“All the evidence collected will be sent to the labs.”
As police forensic teams worked the scene, well-known ANC members arrived at Luthuli House to see what had happened.
Besides Mantashe, who said he had been at a meeting elsewhere, deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte also arrived.
Others, including Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe, phoned Mthembu asking for an update on what had happened.
Security at the building is usually tight.
A police Nyala has been permanently stationed on the corner of Sauer and President streets for the past three years, while CCTV cameras monitor the entrance.
There are usually security checks at the door.
Late on Tuesday night, Malila said police hadn’t made any arrests.
There have been other incidents at the ANC HQ. In 2005, a fire broke out on the sixth floor.
In 2008, Salani Halata was arrested when he walked into Luthuli House, threw petrol over a security scanner and set it alight.
He told a court afterwards that he had been angry with Nelson Mandela. The blaze was put out by a security guard.
There was a bomb scare later that year.
In 2010, the ANC headquarters were placed under 24-hour police guard following another bomb threat.