JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When President Pieter W. Botha imposed a nationwide state of emergency to curb South Africa's continuing civil strife, the African National Congress took it as a declaration of war and responded with a sharp upsurge in its guerrilla and terrorist attacks.
In the month since, 14 bombs have exploded at shopping centers, restaurants, bus stops and a police station, killing three people, injuring 123 others and bringing the once-remote conflict into downtown Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.
The sharp escalation in ANC action was "to be expected and is being dealt with," a government official said. But he conceded nevertheless that "urban terrorism is likely to get worse before the situation improves."
One senior official, asking not to be quoted by name, said: "We have desperate men in the ANC who are willing to take enormous risks, and a few will continue to slip through our security net, however tight we make it. If a man is willing to die, to commit suicide, he can always take others with him. . . . We see the ANC gradually being reduced to just a bunch of such fanatics with less and less support among the people."
Suspects in Killing
The guerrillas are suspected in the assassination last month of Brig. Andrew Molope, a senior police commander in the nominally independent black homeland of Bophuthatswana, and in the attacks earlier this month on security patrols in two black townships southeast of Johannesburg in which five policemen were killed and 12 wounded. Two of the attackers were also killed.
The police have reported four major gun battles with heavily armed guerrillas, including two near the Botswana border, one north of Durban and the latest, last Friday, outside King William's Town in eastern Cape province. Seventeen insurgents were killed and one was captured in the clashes, police said. They speculated that the insurgents were heading for urban areas to carry out further attacks.
Ten people were killed in Bophuthatswana two weeks ago, seven of them when explosives, apparently being carried by guerrillas en route to Pretoria or Johannesburg, were set off accidentally in a minibus taxi.
The series of bomb attacks, most of whose victims were civilians, have aroused considerable anxiety here about the long-term strategy of the African National Congress.
The government has accused the group of embarking upon "a campaign of utterly callous and undisguised terrorism" and has declared that this will only strengthen the "resolve of all peace-loving South Africans" to fight the rebels.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace laureate, and other anti-apartheid activists have deplored the increased violence and the loss of innocent lives. Liberals have warned that urban terrorism could quickly discredit the African National Congress and stiffen white resistance to change.
Rebel headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, in a change of policy, has refused to confirm its involvement in the bombings and other recent actions except to tell Johannesburg newspapers recently that there has been no change from its announced policy of not directly targeting civilians.
Mike Hough, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Pretoria, who says that nearly half of the insurgents' attacks this year have been on civilian targets, believes that the ANC wants to avoid public responsibility for them to avoid tarnishing its image here and abroad.
"Everything from the types of weapons to the methods of their use points to the ANC," Hough said.
The African National Congress, which began what it calls its armed struggle a year after the government outlawed the organization in 1960, has won increasing recognition here and abroad during the last two years as the principal group fighting apartheid.
The group's military wing, Spear of the Nation, had stepped up its attacks before the state of emergency in an avowed move toward "people's war." The ANC believes it can bring down the white-led government either through an eventual armed insurrection or by forcing it into negotiations on the "transfer of power."
In the first six months of this year, the University of Pretoria's Institute of Strategic Studies recorded 124 ANC-style attacks, compared to 136 such incidents throughout 1985, itself an increase of 34% over the previous year.
A dozen large caches of arms and explosives were found earlier this year outside Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and other cities, indicating that the rebels plan an even greater escalation in its armed attacks. Also, Spear of the Nation cadres have been training many youths from the townships in short courses on the use of weapons and explosives. And local black communities, particularly those with strong guerrilla leadership cells, began forming local "defense units" in May.
In May, after South African military raids on reputed rebel facilities in neighboring Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the ANC leadership called for intensification of "armed attacks at all levels."