Interview with Comrade Chris Hani

CH So let me start from the beginning. I was born in the Transkei on 28 June 1942 in a
small town called Cofimvaba which is about 60kms from Queenstown. I was not born in
that small town, I was born in a remote village, St Marks. My mother had never been to
school and my father must have gone to school for about five to six years. Basically
primary education. My father was a migrant worker. He worked in the mines earlier on
and later on he worked as a construction worker in Cape Town. Later becoming a
hawker and selling soft goods. We as young people saw very little of him and our group
really was supervised and monitored by my mother. We went to the village school,
walking about 8 to 10 kms a day going to that school. We were three boys. We were six
in the family but three survived. Because in the rural areas those days there were literally
no health facilities. A family was lucky to have the whole offspring surviving. If fifty
percent survived, that was an achievement, so out of six, three of us survived and we are
still surviving. Then from there I went to a Catholic mission to finish my standard 6. It was
at this stage that I seriously considered being a Catholic priest, but my father would not
have anything of that.
L Were your parents Christians?
CH Well, no. My father was baptised, my mother was baptised, but they were not
practising Christians. I never saw them going to church. My grandmother never went to
church. So it was not a Christian family. I grew up in an area where very few people
were Christians. In the village, probably three or four people bothered to go to church.
It was really a traditional African area where people practised their own religious
worship. The influence of Christianity was very minimal. So, although I went to a Christian
church, I must say I was under the spell and influence of the priests, the monks and the
nuns. And one must say that there is something basically one admired in them. A sense
of hard work, selflessness. These people would go on horseback to the most rural parts of
the village, taking the gospel to the people, encouraging kids to go to school. Praying
for the sick and offering all sorts of advice. In other words they were not only priests, but
they were nurses, they were teachers, they were social workers. I must submit that had a
very very strong impression on me and in the formation of my character. I thought I
wanted to be a priest, but my father didn’t want it so I had no say in this thing. I CH So let me start from the beginning. I was born in the Transkei on 28 June 1942 in a
small town called Cofimvaba which is about 60kms from Queenstown. I was not born in
that small town, I was born in a remote village, St Marks. My mother had never been to
school and my father must have gone to school for about five to six years. Basically
primary education. My father was a migrant worker. He worked in the mines earlier on
and later on he worked as a construction worker in Cape Town. Later becoming a
hawker and selling soft goods. We as young people saw very little of him and our group
really was supervised and monitored by my mother. We went to the village school,
walking about 8 to 10 kms a day going to that school. We were three boys. We were six
in the family but three survived. Because in the rural areas those days there were literally
no health facilities. A family was lucky to have the whole offspring surviving. If fifty
percent survived, that was an achievement, so out of six, three of us survived and we are
still surviving. Then from there I went to a Catholic mission to finish my standard 6. It was
at this stage that I seriously considered being a Catholic priest, but my father would not
have anything of that.
L Were your parents Christians?
CH Well, no. My father was baptised, my mother was baptised, but they were not
practising Christians. I never saw them going to church. My grandmother never went to
church. So it was not a Christian family. I grew up in an area where very few people
were Christians. In the village, probably three or four people bothered to go to church.
It was really a traditional African area where people practised their own religious
worship. The influence of Christianity was very minimal. So, although I went to a Christian
church, I must say I was under the spell and influence of the priests, the monks and the
nuns. And one must say that there is something basically one admired in them. A sense
of hard work, selflessness. These people would go on horseback to the most rural parts of
the village, taking the gospel to the people, encouraging kids to go to school. Praying
for the sick and offering all sorts of advice. In other words they were not only priests, but
they were nurses, they were teachers, they were social workers. I must submit that had a
very very strong impression on me and in the formation of my character. I thought I
wanted to be a priest, but my father didn’t want it so I had no say in this thing. I branched, and I went to high school.
In 1958 I completed my matric and I went over to Fort Hare the following year to
become a university student. I began to be consciously involved in the struggle in 1957.
We had all been politicised by the introduction of Bantu education. It was very
unpopular. Many teachers spoke out against it, and this impacted on some of us. One
found his way to the African National Congress Youth League. One began to read an
assortment of journals and newspapers, New Age whose editor then was I think Lionel
Forman. That was before Brian Bunting. I also began to read the organ of the Unity
Movement called Torch, published in the Western Cape. At the same time one read
journals like Fighting Talk edited by Ruth First, Liberation and all that. So it was at this
stage as a young matric student that I began to get politicised and I was reading quite
considerable political literature.
L did you join the YL while you were still at school?
CH Yes, at the age of 15 I joined the YL at Lovedale.
L When you were reading Torch were you now being introduced to Marxist
concepts.
CH Yes, I began to be introduced to Marxist concepts through reading both New Age
and Torch. There was a page in New Age which dealt with the struggle of the working
class throughout the world. What was happening in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia,
the GDR, China. The life that people were building there. And that had an appeal in my
own impassionate young mind. Given my background, I was attracted by ideas and the
philosophy which had a bias towards the working class. Which had as its stated
objective the upliftment of the people on the ground. For about six or nine months I was
actually in the Unity Movement. I was a member of SOYA, the Society of Young Africa.
My earlier political influence was the Unity Movement. It was strong amongst
intellectuals in the whole of the Eastern Cape, most of the intellectuals, teachers and all
that belonged to the Unity Movement. Some of them had taught us. But later on I
began to examine the Unity Movement, and I didn’t see them being involved in the mass
struggles of our people. The struggle was waged in the mind, in the head. It was a
theoretical struggle. The activism of the ANC began to make me shift my political
allegiance from the UM to the ANC. Furthermore, I met comrades who were already in
the YL like Comrade Sipho Makana, Anderson Ganyile who was banished from
Pondoland during the Pondo struggle. I began to be exposed to the writings of Govan
Mbeki who was writing a lot, he was a prolific writer on the problems of the rural areas
and the struggles in the Eastern Cape. And so I began to join the ANC and belong to an
ANC underground cell because it was illegal to become a member of a political
organisation within the college, the Lovedale institution.
L I was going to ask what the nuns and brothers thought of it.
CH This one was not, I had moved away from a Catholic school, this was a Presbyterian school, but with very strict headmasters and all that sort of thing. Political
activity was absolutely prohibited. In a way we were introduced to the underground
struggle before the ANC was banned. So in a way you can say that we as students were
better placed when the ANC was banned in 1960 because our activities were illegal at
the College, at Lovedale. And then, at this stage one began to read widely about the
leaders of the ANC because the first requirement was to understand the history of the
ANC going back to 1912, why was it formed, who were its earlier leaders, going through
all the different periods. The period of the YL itself, the history of the YL. The contribution
to the ANC by the YL in terms of the militancy, the programme of action, and who were
behind this POA, people like Tambo, Mandela, Mji, Anton Lembede (559), Sisulu etc. And
now, as youngsters, these were our idols. These were our heroes. These young people
who actually transformed the ANC and made it to become an organisation which was
militant, which was actually engaging the white government. Therefore this was the
period of our general understanding of the contribution and the role of people like
Tambo. We admired them because we saw in them a different type of intelligentsia.
And intelligentsia which is selfless, which is not just concerned about making money,
creating a comfortable situation for themselves, but an intelligentsia which had lots of
time for the struggle of the oppressed people of SA. How they used their legal
knowledge to alleviate the judicial persecution of the blacks through the pass laws,
through Bantu Authorities, or the Group Areas. And as we therefore studied, we felt that
our priority as a future probably intellectuals, should be to participate in this struggle.
And I must say my life was shaped by the outlook of people like comrade Tambo,
Mandela, Duma Nokwe and others.
BREAK IN RECORDING
CH One must point out that there had never been any physical meeting between me
and Comrade OR. That had to wait until the ANC got banned in 1960, leading the
situation where Umkonto weSiswe was formed in 1961. It was my joining Umkonto
WeSiswe which lead to a development where I left the country. This is early 1963.
L How did you join MK? And had you joined the Party by then?
CH In 1961, at Fort Hare, at the University College of Fort Hare, I was doing my third
year, studying for a BA degree and majoring in Latin and English. I am approached, I
am already a member of the YL, by some comrades who apparently had been
moulded or welded into a Communist Party unit by Comrade Mbeki. so In 1961 I joined
the Party and I began seriously studying Marxism, the basic works of Marxist authors like
Emily Bents (534) What is Marxism, the Communist Manifesto, the World Marxist Review
and a number of other publications. I began to read the history of our Party by people
like Edward Roux for instance, Time Longer than Rope, giving the earlier history of the CP.
And other journals by people like Bill Andrews and trade union periodicals written with
contributions from people like Ray Alexander, Gomas, Jimmy La Guma.
Now I am sure the next question is, why did I join the CP? Why was I not just satisfied with
the ANC? I belonged to a world, in terms of my background which suffered I think the worst extremes of apartheid. A poor rural area where the majority of working people
spent their times in the compounds, in the hostels, away from their families. A rural area
where there were no clinics and probably the nearest hospital was 50kms. Generally a
life of poverty with the basic things unavailable. Where our mothers and our sisters would
walk 3kms and even 6kms whenever there was a drought to fetch water. Where the only
fuel available was going 5, 6kms away to cut wood and bring it back. This was the sort
of life. Now I had seen the lot of black workers, extreme forms of exploitation. Slave
wages, no trade union rights, and for me the appeal of socialism was extremely great.
Where it was said that workers create wealth but in the final analysis they get nothing.
They get peanuts in order to survive and continue working for the capitalists. So it was
that simple approach that simple understanding which was a product of my own
observation in addition to theory. I didn’t get involved with the workers’ struggle out of
theory alone. Why did I join the CP? Why was I not just satisfied with the ANC? I
belonged to a world, in terms of my background which suffered I think the worst
extremes of apartheid. A poor rural area where the majority of working people spent
their times in the compounds, in the hostels, away from their families. A rural area where
there were no clinics and probably the nearest hospital was 50kms. Generally a life of
poverty with the basic things unavailable. Where our mothers and our sisters would walk
3kms and even 6kms whenever there was a drought to fetch water. Where the only fuel
available was going 5, 6kms away to cut wood and bring it back. This was the sort of life.
Now I had seen the lot of black workers, extreme forms of exploitation. Slave wages, no
trade union rights, and for me the appeal of socialism was extremely great. Where it was
said that workers create wealth but in the final analysis they get nothing. They get
peanuts in order to survive and continue working for the capitalists. So it was that simple
approach that simple understanding which was a product of my own observation in
addition to theory. I didn’t get involved with the workers’ struggle out of theory alone. It
was a combination of theory and my own class background. I never faltered in my
belief in socialism despite all the problems currently. For me that belief is strong because
that is still the life of the majority of the people with whom I share a common
background.
L What made you different in that you got as far as university?
CH Yes, that is an important question. In my family the first person to become a
teacher, in other words two years after the junior certificate, it was called the Native
Primary Higher, NPH, was my aunt. She is still alive. She stays somewhere in Zondi in
Soweto. My father’s sister. She was a source of tremendous influence to all of us. This girl
coming from that sort of area, studying to become a teacher. I remember as a small
boy I used to have a fascination of books, I would read those books although I
understood very little. She encouraged me and taught me a few necessary rhymes and
began to open up a new world even before I got to school. A world of knowing how to
write the alphabet, how to count, in other words not only literacy but numeracy.
Because of that background, when I went to school I was in a better position than most
boys in the village, and I remember the principal of the school got encouraged, how I
would read a story and actually memorise that story and without looking at the book I
would actually recite it word by word. And then I became a very good pupil. For instance instead of doing the usual, I wrote standard 5 and standard 6 at the same time,
because I passed the Std 5 examination within the same year as Std 6 and then I was
promoted to high school. Then there was a scholarship in the Transkei called the Bhunga
(491), you know the old Bhunga, sort of an advisory board? Well I got that Bhunga
scholarship to take me to high school and then I got even a bursary and a scholarship to
go to university because I was performing rather above average. I got a bursary from
the Bhunga and then later on my father was also helping to pay what the scholarship
couldn’t cover. He was in Cape Town by then. He was hawking now, and he helped to
pay the rest of the fees. When I went over to Fort Hare, in addition to the Bhunga
scholarship, I won a government loan to go to university. I think basically that is what
helped me to go to university. It was extremely hard. One would have only one pair of
shoes, one jacket and it was not easy because other students from families which were
probably were more comfortable than mine, the kids would be better clothed that
myself. But I had accepted the fact that this was not important for me. What was
important was to get my education. It was through this spirit of self sacrifice and
accepting that the priority was to get my education. There was a number of us coming
from rural areas who got their pocket money because parents sold hides and wool
whenever it was the sheep shearing season. We had some sheep and some cattle and
goats at home. So my mother also, my father bought a sewing machine for my mother,
so now and again through that I could get a bit of pocket money whilst I was at
Lovedale and Fort Hare.
L This point about the long-term goal, it’s interesting that you made short term
sacrifices for the long term goal.
CH That’s right. For me that was important and I was actually influenced by the sort of
puritan life in the villages. During holidays I used to go and be with my mother, help my
mother in the fields, growing maize and harvesting. Because if you harvested probably
20 bags of maize, the rest would be sold to the white shopkeeper. Because that was the
only market available in the rural areas. It was the white shopkeeper who would buy at
prices determined by him. [laugh]. In other words I contributed even to the slender
financial resources of the family by working very hard during holidays in the fields and
also looking after the stock.
BREAK IN RECORDING
CH Same village.
L In terms of the chronology, you joined the YL, you were in Fort Hare, you also
joined the UM at Lovedale. So by the time you got to Fort Hare
CH I joined the UM at Lovedale and then at Fort Hare I was already a fully fledged
member of the YL. Then I joined the Party at Fort Hare.
L But in a sense the UM was preparing you for the Party.

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