30th Anniversary of the terror attack on St James Church, Cape Town.

Jul 23, 2023 by

Reflections from Rev Ross Anderson taken from an interview with News24, and posted with his permission.

  • Take us through what happened to you that night? (filmed on stage and in pews)

Please may I change your question slightly: “What happened that night?”


I was leading the service. Two attackers burst in and fired on us with automatic weapons and lobbed two hand grenades into the congregation. A third waited outside. A fourth was the driver of the getaway vehicle.[1]

  • What was going through your head? How did you feel?

Firecrackers – Neighbours disrupting the service (parking). Then realised it was an attack.


Concern for the congregation.


We were listening to a beautiful duet sung by Tania and Neil.

Eleven were killed that night. There were sixty-six serious injuries.[2] The emotional injuries affected many more people and took a lot longer to heal, in some cases will never heal.


  • What happened in the days after?

Huge pastoral overload.




The first arrest was made thirteen days after the attack, the suspect (Mr Gcinikhaya Christopher Makoma) was only 17 years old.


  • What is your defining memory of the night in question?





The smell of explosives. The smell and sight of human blood all over the St James Church members, pews, and carpets.


And yet I had an overwhelming sense that God was with us in the slaughter, maiming, death, and suffering. He had not abandoned us. He was there with us in “the valley of the shadow of death”.


  • And the weeks after?Preaching that addressed the congregations needs.

Preaching and writing that addressed the social context at the time.

Huge pastoral responsibility caring for the bereaved, wounded, and traumatised.

At times the waves of bereavement, loss, and sorrow that swept over me were almost unbearable.


Many questions were raised in my mind on church and society, church and state and the role the denomination of which I am a member played or did not play. What exactly is the church’s role and responsibility in SA and to the government of the day? What does Romans 13 mean in the context of the whole Bible?


These are some of the questions that haunted me for weeks, months, years, … decades after the attack.



• Can you give us some context of the time? What was happening in South Africa in 1993?


We need to go back and take cognisance of hundreds of years of colonialism and the sin of apartheid. This led to the struggle by black South Africans for freedom and dignity, which was met with increasing state violence, and resulted ultimately in revolutionary violence, and so in 1993 St James was caught in the spiral of violence in South Africa.


We were one of several “soft” targets that APLA attacked in 1992 and 1993. Sabelo Phama, APLA’S chief commander (Mphahlele 2002:79, 137, 161) sanctioned the following attacks on civilians: King Williams Town Golf Club (28 November 1992), killing four people; Highgate Hotel in East London[3] (1 May 1993), killing five people; St James Church Kenilworth (25 July 1993) killing eleven people; and Heidelberg Tavern in Observatory (31 December 1993) killing four people (Truth Commission Special Report. TRC Final Report Volume 2, Section 1, Chapter 7. sabctrc.saha.org.za).


This is what was happening in South Africa at the time.


Furthermore, the attack on St James must also be understood against the background of the transitional period to the 1994 national election that was marred by several major attacks, symbolised by Boipatong (17 June 1992),[4] Bisho (7 September 1992),[5] the World Trade Centre (1 April 1993),[6] the assassination of Chris Hani (10 April 1993), and Shell House (March 1994).[7] In particular, the assassination of Chris Hani fuelled riots throughout South Africa and drew international attention to the instability of the transition period in South Africa.

And then of course many, both nationally and internationally, asked, “Why a church?” Why would the APLA attack a Christian congregation at worship? A congregation that was not exclusively white.

As Long ago as 1979, in the Foreword to John de Gruchy’s book The Church Struggle in South Africa, Alan Paton wrote,

There is unfortunately abundant evidence that many black radicals regard Christianity as a white exploitative religion, and the Christian missionaries … as responsible for the destruction of the ancestral beliefs …

However, in 2003 David Yutar reported Mphahlele as stating:

APLA didn’t single out the St James Church for any particular reason but simply as part of its policy of “taking the armed struggle into white areas”.

In my view the deliberate targeting of a Christian congregation gathered for worship, the killing of eleven unarmed civilian worshippers and the wounding and maiming of dozens more cannot be defended. But nor can the church in South Africa ignore its complicity in both colonialism and apartheid.

  • How did the church respond to such a violent, unimaginable act?

The congregation responded in prayer, love, a refusal to give in to hate or bitterness or revenge. And many in the congregation expressed forgiveness.


  • Were there any misconceptions you feel should be addressed?

Forgiveness does not mean condoning evil. What we meant was unconditional love. We were guided by Romans 12:17-21 which is about love of enemies. In this passage Paul echoes much of Jesus’ teaching on the sermon on the Mount. The great Apostle gives two negatives – repay no one evil for evil, and don’t take revenge; and then two positives – do good, and live at peace with everyone.


So vengeance – i.e., the punishment of evil – is a divine prerogative (through the state and at the final judgment). We attempted to pay back evil with unconditional love. Love is the only force that can transfer an enemy into a friend. Nothing inhibits love as much as pride does; and nothing promotes love like humility.


You may have read this short poem by Graham Kings:

Love for those who like us is ordinary

Love for those who are like us is narcissistic

Love for those who are unlike us is extraordinary

Love for those who dislike us is revolutionary.

It is important for me to add that three of the men who attacked us said sorry for what they had done, and they did so publicly at the TRC and privately when a small group of us from St James met with them behind closed doors. This did indeed open the door for true biblical forgiveness.


  • How was it an evangelical opportunity?

I think you mean evangelistic.


By God’s grace and Spirit, I hope our example of love and forgiveness was a powerful witness to the whole of South Africa and beyond.


And with St James being thrust so visibly into the media we did use the opportunity to evangelise, i.e., to preach the gospel events that Christ died and rose again, the gospel promises of forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel demands of repentance and faith. And in God’s goodness many came to faith in Christ. In that we rejoiced greatly.


But in retrospect I think our evangelism was weak on the gospel affirmation that Christ is Lord. Yes, Jesus is Saviour, but he is also Lord and discipleship is all about following Christ as Lord in both private and public, church and society.  We could have done (much) better in that area.

  • How did this event shape South Africa in the months to follow…

That’s a very complicated question which I am not qualified to answer.


What I will say is that a line was crossed in the struggle (by then it was an armed and violent struggle) for freedom. To attack a multiracial congregation at worship was unexpected.[8] I think it highlighted for all South Africans how deep the anger of many black people was, and the lengths they would go to in the struggle for liberation. I also think it shows how violence can take on a life of its own which brought South Africa to the brink of civil war.


What is confusing to me is that the attack took place after the unbanning of political parties and the release of political prisoners including Nelson Mandela. Moreover, in November 1991 the first constitutional talks had taken place, and in December 1991 the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA I) started its first plenary meeting.


  • Lastly, it’s been 30 years… What are your thoughts now looking back?

In my view the church in South Africa needs to embrace its role in society and its duty to speak prophetically to the state. What that means is that the church must speak out and oppose all social and state sanctioned sin. To be a disciple of the Lord Jesus (risen, ascended and reigning) demands that the church speaks truth to power. It is part and parcel of our witness. We must not withdraw into the security of our church communities and church compounds; we need to get involved in the daily life of our country.


Social action is part of the church’s witness. Society and the State need to hear the voice of the risen, ascended, and reigning Christ as he speaks through his church and as His church lives-out the will of God on all issues of righteousness, both private and public, and not only on the so called “sins of sex” – abortion, pornography, and homosexuality – but all sin in society.


And the church (every local congregation) needs to show that it loves all the people of South Africa. We need to stand with and defend all who suffer unjustly in our society, no matter what the cost may be. Too often the church comes across as soul-less, uncaring, separate, aloof from the world, and devoid of compassion for the broken, marginalised, and suffering. Authentic Christianity is not about me and God; it is about loving God with all our being and loving our neighbour as ourselves.


We need to recommit ourselves to the mission of God, which definitely includes evangelism, but is much more than evangelism, it is holistic, integrated, multi-dimensional, whole Bible; that is to say it includes all of God’s commands, all the petitions in the Lord’s prayer, and all that Jesus taught us. Indeed, all that the Bible teaches us.


Kyrie, eleison! Lord, have mercy upon us!


Copyright © 2023 D.R. Anderson. All rights reserved.

Reproduced with permission.


[1]     Bassie Mzukisi Mkhumbuzi, Gcinikhaya Christopher Makoma, Tobela Mlambisa, Sichumiso Nonxuba (the four members of APLA who attacked the congregation); Letlapa Mphahlele (who was operations commander of APLA and the mastermind behind the attacks on both the Heidelberg Tavern in Observatory and the St James Church Congregation in Kenilworth); Sabelo Phama, (APLA’S chief commander) sanctioned the attack.

[2]     According to the many hospital reports.

[3]     According to Mphahlele (2012:32) the Highgate Hotel was attacked twice. The first time was not APLA, but the second time (a failed rifle-grenade attack in March 1994) was APLA.

[4]     “They (Zulu impis) massacred 46 people, including an eight-month-old baby held in his mother’s arms” (Smith 2002:71). Cf. Storey 2018:408.

[5]     “The ANC and the SACP, … marched on Bisho, the capital of Ciskei, to symbolically seize the homeland. Jittery Ciskeian troops opened fire: 29 died and 200 were injured” (Smith 2002:71).

[6]     Referred to as the “World Traitors’ Centre” by Mphahlele (2002:173).

[7]     Conradie 2021.

[8]     But not unprecedented. It should also be noted that the APLA attack on St James was not the first time South Africa suffered a (terrorist?)  attack on a Christian Church. In 1906 the church at Mgijima in the Eastern Cape was attacked and “the army mowed down more than 4000 African worshippers” (Sunday Argus July 27, 2003:5). Eighty-two years later the church in South Africa was attacked yet again.  Storey (2018:234) explains:  “At about 1am on 31 August (1988), the apartheid state committed its most violent act of terrorism against the Christian Church. Using between 60 and 80kg of explosive, a hit-squad led by their most feared assassin, Eugene de Kock – nicknamed ‘Prime Evil’ – blew up Khotso House, headquarters of the SACC …”

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