Hani, Chris 1942–1993
Chris Hani 1942–1993
South African activist
In early April of 1993, African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela and South African president F. W. de Klerk reached a broad agreement on the constitutional future of that bitterly divided country, and the world applauded: the stalled march toward black majority rule had apparently resumed. A few days later, Communist party leader and anti-apartheid activist Chris Hani was murdered, and the world feared that South Africa, once again, had stumbled. Hani, who had once been the chief proponent of using force against the white regime—and in so doing had endeared himself to black youths impatient with the more conciliatory approach of mainstream black leaders—had recently changed his position, saying that violence threatened reform negotiations. But in the eyes of some whites, Hani had become a greater danger as a peacemaker than he had ever been as a militant. Perhaps the greatest irony, however, was the fact that the last assassination of a major South African political leader had taken place in 1966, when Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the primary architects of apartheid (a system of foced segregation and political and economic discrimination against the black majority population in South Africa), was stabbed in the chest in Cape Town’s parliament building.
Hani’s martyrdom was a crucial test for black South Africans. On the one hand, a leadership vacuum was created, and the country needed to begin its search for a new, young savior capable of one day succeeding an aging Mandela. On the other hand, leaders called upon the people to quash any budding political chaos and violence, which, if allowed to erupt, would threaten the transition toward majority rule. Speaking at Hani’s funeral, the largest political rite in South Africa since the 1990 celebration surrounding Mandela’s release from prison, Communist leader Joe Slovo, as quoted in the Boston Globe, said, “Chris Hani was killed by those who would like to see an explosion of carnage and race war, a massive spilling of blood, and the end of negotiations. The assassins want to drag us back to a military battlefield. Let us draw them back to a battlefield of our choosing—the battlefield of the ballot. They may have the guns. But we have the majority.” Slovo added that Hani “had a dream. They killed the man, but they can never kill the dream. And the dream Chris Hani had is about to become a reality.”
Martin Thembisile Hani, later known by friends and enemies alike as Chris, was bom June 28, 1942, in Cofimvaba,
Born Martin Thembisile Hani, June 28, 1942, in Cofimvaba, Transkei, South Africa; shot to death outside his home, April 10, 1993; married with three children. Education: Attended University College at Fort Hare, 1959-61; received B.A. from Rhodes University.
Joined African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, 1957; articled clerk in Cape Town, 1962-63; affiliated with the South African Congress of Trade Unions; began working underground with armed wing of banned ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, 1962; fought with rebels in Rhodesia against white government, 1967; elected to ANC National Executive Committee, 1975; trained and funneled guerrillas into South Africa; Umkhonto we Sizwe, appointed deputy commander, 1982, became chief of staff, 1987; participated in talks between ANC and South African government, 1990-93; elected general secretary of the South African Communist party, 1991.
Transkei. His family’s intellectual focus was on politics, and it was in this direction that Chris was strenuously pushed. His father, a construction worker and trader, was an active member of the African National Congress, a group dedicated to the establishment of social and political rights for black South Africans; his uncle served in the South African Communist party. Thus Chris was exposed early to the ideology of the anti-apartheid movement. When he announced his intention of becoming a Catholic priest, his father speedily transferred him to a nondenominational school, where his activism, rather than his religious zeal, could be fueled.
He joined the ANC Youth League in 1957, and, while at Fort Hare University College, was recruited by a professor into the deep fold of the Communist party, which had been officially banned in 1950. “I felt there was something basically good about a party hated by the people we hated,” Hani told New Statesman & Society. “Being young, there was something romantic about belonging to a cell of the SACP, a party cursed by our apartheid rulers.”
The Communist party and the ANC, though squarely united in the crusade to topple apartheid, had a relationship mottled by suspicion. The party had been founded by and for whites in 1921, and while in subsequent years its membership had become largely black, its leadership remained disproportionately white. Because of this, leading figures in the ANC Youth League of the 1940s, including Mandela and Walter Sisulu, strongly opposed the party. Further straining relations was a contrast in underlying worldviews of the organizations. The party, whose leaders were Marxists and Soviet apologists, envisioned a strictly communist South Africa, whereas as the ANC decisionmakers saw racial equality in terms of democracy, private property, and other fundamental capitalistic principles.
Still, when the ANC was banned in 1960, it turned to the discipline, organization, and Soviet-bloc funding of the party for help. The two groups became underground allies, and Hani emerged as one of the young lions who recognized that the organizations should settle their ideological differences only once a new South African government, dedicated to racial equality, was being shaped.
Over the 30 years following the ANC ban, Hani traveled in the shadows, rising through the ranks of the group’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation.” He played cat and mouse with the government, being repeatedly arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act and serving two years in prison in Botswana on a weapons-related charge. In exile, Hani fought with the rebels of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, against white minority rule, and became an expert in communications systems and other military infrastructure. Stationed in Lesotho for seven years, he trained and infiltrated guerrillas into South Africa. Hani was elected to the National Executive Committee of the ANC in 1975, and subsequently was appointed deputy commander and then chief of staff of the Umkhonto.
Hani was a near-mythic figure during the warring years, famous not only for his zeal and intelligence, but for the tactical skills he brought to his mission. In Apartheid’s Rebels: Inside South Africa’s Hidden War, Stephen M. Davis quoted Hani as stating over Radio Freedom, “If we are working in a factory which produces weapons, vehicles, [and] trucks which are used by the army and police against us…you must ensure that there are frequent breakdowns in those machines you operate. You can clog some of them by using sugar and sand.” Under Hani, the ANC intensified its bombing and sabotage campaigns, although it never seriously threatened the massive South African security apparatus. He escaped two assassination attempts, both car bombings in Lesotho that he claimed had been carried out by agents of the South African government. He said, prophetically, that he was willing to die for the cause of racial equality and black rule.
A legendary war hero whose appeal was greatest with young exiles and militant black youths within the country, Hani made no secret of his view that white South Africans would appreciate the viciousness of apartheid only once they experienced the instability and violence that blacks had long endured at the hands of the state security forces. “When we began to attack targets in the white areas, for the first time white South Africans began to sit up and say: ‘This thing is coming.”’ he related in the Christian Science Monitor. “When they actually began to hear explosions in the center of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, they began to realize that what they saw happening in other countries…was beginning to take place in South Africa.” Hani claimed that it was the stridency of the Umkhonto, the commitment of force to back up the airy words of revolutionary theory, that turned the ANC into a legitimate political organ for young blacks in South Africa. Meanwhile, older leaders of the congress under then-president general Oliver Tambo argued against violent attacks on civilian targets.
Hani, joining others who had been living clandestinely beyond the border, returned to South Africa in 1990, following the release of Mandela from prison and the legalization of the ANC. In a symbolic move, Hani chose not to live in the townships where he was worshipped, but in Boksburg, a suburb of Johannesburg known for its conservative, white racists. He participated in the first ever talks between the ANC and the government in May of 1990 and agreed with other ANC leaders that in order to better the chances for a peaceful accord, armed resistance would be suspended.
But Hani had not forsaken his militant ideals: he threatened to pull the ANC out of negotiations and to possibly resume the armed struggle if the government did not abolish all security laws, dismantle right-wing security groups, and dismiss the defense and police ministers, among other steps. At the same time, in the face of growing violence between the ANC and the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, Hani flatly stated that the ANC would use weapons to defend its community. With such bold strokes, Hani emerged as the hero of those blacks who had long been unable to defend themselves and were skeptical of negotiations with a government that had emasculated them. He was a young, charismatic firebrand who bridged the generational gap between the restless black youths of the townships and the elder statesmen of the ANC, including Mandela.
Still, as events unfolded in South Africa and de Klerk made actions of his promises to progressively dismantle apartheid, Hani—increasingly pragmatic in political matters—softened his message, saying that black violence against the government was neither necessary nor helpful because the whites were finally speaking fairly and openly. He was quoted in Newsweek as saying, “Whether we like it or not, whites are South Africans like ourselves. They took power away from us and oppressed us, but we didn’t get into the struggle to destroy the white group. We want to convince whites that democracy is better than apartheid, that…they will continue having a better life and a more normal life. They won’t fear the blacks they’ve feared for years. Whites are beginning to realize that changes are inevitable, and they are learning to live with changes.”
In December of 1991, Hani was elected general secretary of the South African Communist party, replacing longtime leader Joe Slovo, who had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. While some viewed Hani’s ascension as reinforcing the strong ties between the communists and the ANC, others anticipated that—because a new constitution was being fashioned and a new South Africa was within sight—basic ideological differences between the two groups would bubble to the surface. Indeed, the party, which numbered its membership at 25,000, demanded the institution of undiluted socialism in South Africa, stressing the doctrine of collective ownership. However, the ANC, ever closer to holding power, emphasized ideological positions—including the protection of private property—that clashed with communist doctrine.
Hani announced in February of 1993 that he would leave the ANC to form a socialist alliance after the multiracial elections scheduled for 1994. At the time he said he wanted the freedom to criticize the new government from the outside, though some political observers thought that he was positioning himself for an eventual presidential bid as a populist candidate.
Hani was shot four times on the night of April 10, 1993. He had given his two bodyguards the day off and had just returned home from driving to buy groceries and newspapers. Police arrested white extremist Janusz Walus in the slaying and several days later also charged Clive Derby-Lewis, a former member of parliament of the Conservative Party (which opposes an end to white minority rule), and his wife, journalist Gaye Derby-Lewis. Mrs. Derby-Lewis was later acquitted, but her husband and Walus were found guilty of murder in October of 1993.
The loss of Hani left the Communist party bereft and thousands of young blacks, dispirited with the ANC’s mainstream leadership, desperate for a new voice. An Emerge correspondent noted, “As was probably intended, Hani’s death drove a wedge between the moderating influence of ANC president Nelson Mandela and youthful militant followers dissatisfied with the slow pace of negotiations designed to give the organization real power.” Political commentators debated whether a new voice in South African politics would be more moderate or extremist than Hani’s, and whether it would be as effective in selling political platforms and compromises in the townships.
At Hani’s funeral, the normally staid Mandela tapped the anger of millions of blacks who felt they had not only lost a shining segment of an otherwise bleak past, but had been denied the promise of Hani’s leadership in the future. “We want peace, but we are not pacifists,” Mandela said in the New York Times. “We are all militants. We are all radicals.”
Davis, Stephen M., Apartheid’s Rebels: Inside South Africa’s Hidden War, Yale University Press, 1987.
Rake, Alan, Who’s Who in Africa: Leaders for the 1990s, Scarecrow Press, 1992.
Boston Globe, May 2, 1991, p. 29; February 1, 1993, p.
2; April 20, 1993, p. 2.
Christian Science Monitor, March 16, 1990, p. 17; July 25, 1990, p. 3.
Emerge, June 1993, p. 18.
New Statesman & Society, December 4, 1992, p. 20.
Newsweek, April 19, 1993, p. 32.
New York Times, September 20, 1992, p. A20; April 11, 1993, p. A1; April 20, 1993, p. A8.
Oakland Press (Oakland County, MI), April 11, 1993, p. A13.
Time, April 19, 1993, p. 48.
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