12 April 2007, Chris Hani – Baragwanath Hospital
On behalf of Kgalema Motlanthe, the Secretary General of the African National Congress, and on behalf of the organisation as a whole, it gives me great pleasure to convey our appreciation for having been invited to deliver this lecture in memory of a great South African.
We extend our congratulations and deep gratitude to the Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital for having organised this annual lecture over the last five years. It is a fitting tribute to a pre-eminent son of our soil, and a valuable opportunity to reflect on why this singularly important institution bears his name.
We wish to make use of this opportunity to pay tribute to the many health workers, administrators and support staff of Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital who continue, often under very difficult conditions, to provide such an outstanding and valuable service to our community and to our country.
We are therefore both honoured and humbled by the invitation.
On an occasion such as this, we are, correctly, called upon to recall the life of Chris Hani, an outstanding freedom fighter who, throughout his life, was wholly committed to the cause of the people of this country, and to the advancement of all humanity.
We are called upon to remember, with a heavy heart, the callous and cowardly act that tragically ended his life fourteen years ago this week.
In the same week as we commemorate the execution in 1979 of another South African martyr, Solomon Mahlangu, we are called upon to remember that so many of our nation’s greatest sons and daughters were forced to pay the heaviest of sacrifices for their belief in the fundamental right of every person to dignity, respect and freedom.
Because of their struggle, and their sacrifice, we are now able to gather here, for this important occasion, in a democratic South Africa, our freedoms guaranteed by a people’s Constitution, united in our determination to overcome the vast challenges our society faces.
Because of their struggle, and their sacrifice, we are certain that, just as today is better than yesterday, so must tomorrow be better than today.
Yet we would be mistaken to think that the time for heroes and heroines has past. We would be mistaken to think that the challenges of the present demand any less commitment or selflessness than demonstrated by those who fought to achieve our freedom.
Certainly, we must celebrate the fact that commitment to the ideals of democracy no longer pose a danger to life and limb. We must celebrate the fact that we have firmly consigned to the past the brutal atrocities that were unleashed against our people.
But we cannot avoid the reality, that if we are to liberate our people from want, from disease, from unemployment, from the legacy of discrimination, then we are going to need more people of the calibre of Chris Hani, not fewer.
Chris Hani, in describing his childhood in Cofimvaba, spoke of the daily struggles that his family faced in overcoming the hardships of poverty. He walked 20 kilometres to school every five days, and the same distance to church on Sundays. With his father away on the mines, his mother relied on subsistence farming to maintain the family.
As he grew, and became exposed to a wider world, Chris was to understand that the daily struggles of the rural poor were the product of a broader system of oppression and exploitation, designed specifically to privilege a small, racially-defined minority.
He understood that the conditions under which the majority of South Africans lived could not be improved as long as that system remained in place. A devout Catholic from an early age, who once harboured a “burning desire” to become a priest, Chris became a devout democrat, with a burning desire to advance the cause of justice and freedom.
It was this burning desire, located within a clear political analysis of the machinations of oppression and exploitation, that drove the teenage Chris Hani into a life of political activism. It was this burning desire that convinced him of the need to respond to ever-greater repression with ever-deeper determination. It was to drive him to abandon into the underground and into the armed wing of the African National Congress.
He, like many of his comrades, was to spend almost three decades in exile, returning only briefly to build underground structures. Yet throughout the trials and tribulations of exile life, Chris never lost faith in the justness of the cause. He never slackened in his determination. Nor did he ever allow himself to succumb to self-pity or despondency. In conditions where it could have been so easy to become cynical, Chris retained his faith in the ability of the South African people to liberate themselves from oppression and exploitation.
The life of Chris Hani demonstrates that a person is judged not only by the lofty goals to which they aspire, but also by the manner in which they strive to achieve those goals. Chris earned the undying respect of his comrades, and the love of the people, not simply for what he believed, but for the selfless, determined and unassuming way in which he pursued those beliefs.
Though an outstanding leader of the democratic movement over many years, holding senior positions in the ANC, SACP and Umkhonto we Sizwe, Chris never sought glory or personal advancement. He was prepared to bear the same privations as those experienced by the men and women under his command, just as he was prepared to face the same risks.
Through his life and struggle, Chris Hani has contributed to our understanding of what it is that defines a freedom fighter, and what is asked of us as we continue the struggle for a better life for all South Africans.
We now know that freedom fighters are defined by the ability to feel very deeply any injustice visited upon any person, whoever they are, and wherever they may be. They are driven by an abiding sense of human solidarity, a genuine empathy and concern for the suffering of others.
We know too that this deeply felt desire for justice translates into action to combat and defeat injustice. Not content to lament the unfairness of the world, the freedom fighter will take up the struggle, often at great cost to themselves, to confront those social, political and economic forces that oppress and exploit.
This struggle is not merely an analytical response to a particular political problem – it is not a game of ideological chess. Nor is it undertaken with scant concern for the theory, practice and experience of struggle – a well-meant, but reckless, endeavour to do something good. It is, instead, a struggle driven by a passion for justice, guided by a clear understanding of the strategy and tactics most able to bring about fundamental change.
Such a struggle is possible because of the generosity of the freedom fighter, and by the passion with which they pursue the cause of the people. It is possible because of the freedom fighter’s selflessness and their ability to endure hardship and make personal sacrifices.
That is why, today, now, in this hospital, and in this society, we need freedom fighters like Chris Hani.
We need freedom fighters who will be generous of spirit, be deeply concerned about the suffering of others, struggle against all forms of injustice, and be prepared to make sacrifices to further the cause of the people.
As we strive to build a healthy nation, as we strive to overcome preventable diseases, as we confront HIV and AIDS, as we seek to make health care more accessible to the poor, and improve the quality of our care, we need freedom fighters.
As we continue to build houses and roads, schools and clinics; as we continue to expand the provision of water, sanitation and electricity; as we continue to provide land and support to rural communities; as we strive to meet the basic needs of our people, we need freedom fighters.
As we seek to grow our economy, progressively bring down unemployment, lift ever greater numbers of our people out of poverty, we need freedom fighters.
As we strive to transform our public institutions, to ensure that they truly serve the people, that they treat members of the public with decency and respect, that they respond adequately to peoples needs, as we do all this, we need freedom fighters.
We need South Africans in all these institutions and behind all these efforts who feel very deeply about any injustice visited upon anybody, and who have the generosity of spirit and the depth of passion to do something about it.
We are not talking merely of public representatives or members of political parties. We are not even talking only of those organised into unions or community groupings. We are talking of all South Africans who want a better society, wherever they are, and whatever they may do.
The achievement of democracy in South Africa was one of the greatest human achievements of the 20th century. Yet our country faces enormous challenges, now at the start of the 21st century, to ensure that the benefits of democracy extend to all our people. We face the challenge of bringing about a fundamental transformation of our society to achieve a better life for all our people.
To undertake this monumental task, South Africa will need activists, patriots and freedom fighters.
The greatest tribute we can pay to Chris Hani, Solomon Mahlangu, Dulcie September, and the many other patriots who fell in battle before we could achieve our democratic breakthrough, is to reaffirm, through our actions, our solemn commitment to build the kind of society to which they dedicated their lives.
I thank you