They shaped our century

Chris Hani, published in “They shaped our century – the most influential South Africans of the 20th century”

Friday, 01 April 2005
Human & Rousseau, 1999
Written by Jeremy Cronin, SACP Deputy General Secretary
The assassination of Chris Hani outside his East Rand home on the morning of 10 April 1993 plunged South Africa into crisis. The multi-party negotiations, which had stuttered along in stop-start mode for over two years, were now hanging by a thread. Hani’s huge popular following was outraged, tens of thousands spontaneously poured on to streets throughout the country. A wide range of other South Africans were numbed with shock.
As the country teetered, ANC president Nelson Mandela was given air time on SATV to broadcast to the nation, appealing for discipline, and to avoid giving way to provocation. In these critical days, the State President, FW De Klerk remained closeted in the seclusion of his holiday home. Many commentators on our negotiated transition were later to observe that the effective transfer of power from De Klerk to Mandela occurred, not with the elections in April 1994, but in this critical week, one year earlier.

Tembisile “Chris” Hani was born on 28 June 1942 in the rural obscurity of Sabalele, in the remote Cofimvaba district of the Transkei. His father, Gilbert, was an unskilled migrant worker. His mother, Mary, like so many other rural African women, scratched some kind of survival from a tiny plot. Six children were to be born to Gilbert and Mary, but the first three died in infancy. There was no clinic in the area, and infant deaths were common. They named their fourth child Mbuyiselo (“replacement”), and, when he survived, they promised themselves the next child would survive too. Child five was, accordingly, named Tembisile, “promise”. Much later, in the 1960s, when he joined the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, Tembisile adopted his younger brother’s name as his nom de guerre – Christopher. And it is as “Chris” that Tembisile has come to be remembered.

The young Hani started schooling in 1950 and, despite the odds stacked against him, managed to matriculate at the age of 16, twice completing two standards in one year. In 1957, he left for the town of Alice where he entered Form 4 at Lovedale, the Eastern Cape’s leading mission school. Among fellow learners were Griffith Mxenge, the human rights lawyer assassinated in 1981, and Thabo Mbeki. At Lovedale the Hani joined the ANC. In 1959 he enrolled at Fort Hare University, studying Latin and English. Here he encountered Marxist ideas, and joined the already illegal, underground SACP. Marxism, he said later, helped him to understand that oppression was not just about race, but also class. “My conversion to Marxism”, he said, “also deepened my non-racial perspective.”

In this period Govan Mbeki, father to Thabo Mbeki, played a formative role in Hani’s development. Teacher, intellectual and journalist, Govan Mbeki was then the ANC’s National Executive Committee member in charge of the Cape Province, he was also the underground SACP’s contact person. It was not just the intellectual alertness of Hani that attracted Mbeki senior. The 1950s were a period of mass mobilisation against the growing barrage of apartheid laws. At Fort Hare, Hani became the leader of a mobilising organisation known as “Force Public”, which worked amongst the student body and in neighbouring villages. Energetic, inspiring and dedicated, the young Hani was beginning to develop skills that would be his hall-mark.
Hani graduated from Fort Hare in April 1962, aged 19, and moved to Cape Town to take up a position as an articled clerk in a law firm. But his political involvement soon shifted him from the legal career he had envisaged. The mass mobilisation of the 1950s had run into heavy repression. In the post-Sharpeville period, ANC and SACP militants were beginning to call for a turn to armed struggle. It was in this context that Hani joined the recently launched Umkhonto we Sizwe.

The early 1960s were tough but heady days for young militants like Hani. There was a widespread belief that armed actions would quickly bring whites to their senses. After all, in Algeria a bitter but short war had recently brought independence. Decolonisation was beginning to sweep through Africa, and an end to white minority rule in South Africa could not be far off. These expectations of an early liberation were held by many senior leaders in the ANC, and by youthful militants. But the apartheid government proved to be more resilient and obdurate than anticipated. Rather than apartheid foundering, it was the ANC-led liberation movement that was to suffer a major strategic defeat in the first half of the 1960s.

But in 1962, Hani did not know that this was to be the medium-term future. A few months after arriving in Cape Town he was stopped at a road-block and found with pamphlets attacking the government’s proposed 90-day detention legislation. After a period in detention he was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act and released on bail. A few months later he was again in detention. After slipping out of the country to attend the ANC’s National Conference in Lobatsi, Botswana, he was arrested at the border post as he tried to return. He was sentenced to 18 months, but again released on bail pending appeal.
Early in 1963 Hani lost his appeal and was instructed by the ANC not to go to prison. He went into hiding for four months, and was then visited by Govan Mbeki with a message: “We want you to leave the country to undergo military training.” It would be 27 years before Hani would again return to South Africa – return legally, that is. He travelled via Tanzania to the Soviet Union, and received military training. In 1964 he was back in Tanzania, along with dozens of other young MK soldiers. More were returning from training, but they could not easily be deployed back into South Africa. Apartheid South Africa was still surrounded by a buffer of white-ruled states.
“Those of us in the camp in the sixties did not have a profound understanding of the problems”, Hani remembered later. “Most of us were very young, in our early twenties. We were impatient to get into action. Don’t tell us there are no routes, we used to say. We must be deployed to find routes. That’s what we were trained for!” Hani became the leading spokesperson for militant MK soldiers who felt the leadership was too complacent. After writing a formal petition, Hani found himself in hot water with the camp leadership, and he was detained by his own organisation for a while. He was, however, released when his plight came to the attention of more senior ANC leaders, notably Joe Slovo.

Slovo and others agreed that action was imperative, to lift morale not just in the camps but at home. The beginnings of guerrilla struggle in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe seemed to offer possibilities. The ANC had developed close relations with Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU, and its armed wing, ZIPRA. In July 1967 30 MK and 20 ZIPRA members crossed the Zambezi River from Zambia into Rhodesia. The commander of the combined unit was ZIPRA’s John Dube, Chris was the unit’s commissar. Across the river, they split into two units, one moving eastwards to set up a base within Rhodesia to keep the route open for further infiltration. The second unit, with Hani, moved westward, with its final objective to cross into South Africa.

Both units moved through the Wankie Game Reserve. The eastern unit’s presence was detected by the Rhodesian security forces within three days of the crossing. After 17 days of marching, spotter planes began to overfly Hani’s group, they too had been detected. On the twentieth day there was a fire-fight which left two dead on either side. Hani’s unit walked through the next night and the following morning, in the afternoon there was a second engagement, with more deaths on the Rhodesian side. This cat and mouse game continued for nearly two months, with Chris, Dube and five others finally crossing into Botswana.
As a military operation the 1967 “Wankie Campaign”, as it came to be known in ANC ranks, did not succeed in its strategic aims – to establish bases in Rhodesia and to infiltrate guerrillas into South Africa itself. But it marked the first major guerrilla battles by MK, and although MK suffered losses, it succeeded also in inflicting casualties on the other side. In the late 1960s, the granite years of apartheid, the Wankie Campaign and Hani’s own exploits, became a symbol of the will to resist. The foundations of the Hani legend were beginning to be laid.

After a brief spell in a Botswana jail, Hani was expelled to Lusaka. The imperative of deploying into South Africa, and of establishing effective rear bases remained – as did Hani’s determination to be an active part of these efforts. In 1974 it was decided to deploy Hani into the land-locked Lesotho, to set up an ANC base. He travelled secretly to Botswana and clandestinely crossed the South African border. He then walked all the way to Lesotho. He set up base in Maseru, but also made four clandestine trips into South Africa in the course of 1975. Hani’s Lesotho underground machinery was established just in time to deal with the sudden influx of hundreds of student militants, mobilised by the 1976-7 student uprisings.

Thenjiwe Mtintso, today deputy secretary general of the ANC, went to Lesotho in 1980 as an activist in the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania. She had no intention of joining the ANC, but went to visit Hani nonetheless in Maseru. “He made me feel as if he had just arrived from South Africa, instead of me”, she remembers. The Hani house, popularly known as “Moscow”, was always full of comrades. This was, of course, highly dangerous. In June 1980 there was an assassination attempt on Hani as he was driving home after visiting new arrivals. In September his driver and car disappeared. In 1981 shots were again fired at him. In October 1982, the ANC decided to withdraw Hani to Lusaka, just two months later an SADF raid on Maseru killed 42 people. The Hani house was raided, but it was empty.

Back in Lusaka, Hani was appointed Army Commissar, number three in MK. His appointment came at a time when morale was extremely low in the camps. The struggles of the 1970s and 80s had greatly swelled the numbers of recruits, but the difficulties of returning cadres back into the country persisted. In this period Hani tirelessly toured MK camps in Angola, listening attentively to angry outbursts of frustration. Exile, especially a prolonged exile is a difficult reality. The ANC came through three decades of diaspora relatively intact, but there were strains and some mutinies in MK Angolan camps. For many in the ANC, Hani’s most outstanding contribution is reckoned to be his patient and empathetic handling of these difficulties in those years.
Hani returned to South Africa in August 1990, a hero to a great majority of South Africans. Several opinion polls at the time showed he was easily the second most popular politician in South Africa, after Nelson Mandela. He shifted in December 1991 from his post in MK, to become general secretary of the SACP. He spent the last years of his life tirelessly addressing meetings through the length and breadth of South Africa, village gatherings, shop stewards councils, street committees. Some sections of the media presented him as a “hawk” opposed to negotiations. In fact, Hani lent all of his authority and military prestige to defend negotiations, often speaking patiently to very sceptical youth, or communities suffering the brunt of Third Force violence.

In their TRC amnesty application, the two convicted killers of Hani, Janus Waluz and Clive Derby-Lewis, admitted they had hoped to derail negotiations by unleashing a wave of race hatred and civil war. It is a tribute to the maturity of South Africans of all persuasions, and it is a tribute to the memory of Hani, that his death, tragically but factually, finally brought focus and urgency to our negotiated settlement.

Chris Hani Institute Frontier Theme