The assassination of Chris Hani, the charismatic leader of the South African Communist Party, was pivotal in the ending of Apartheid. Why was this man considered such a threat to both the extreme-right wing in South Africa and the new, moderate leadership of the African National Congress.
Date of birth: 28 June 1942, Comfimvaba, Transkei, South Africa
Date of death: 10 April 1993, Dawn Park, Johannesburg, South Africa
Martin Thembisile (Chris) Hani was born on 28 June 1942 in a small rural town, Comfimvaba, in Transkei, approximately 200 km from East London, the fifth of six children. His father, a semi-literate migrant worker in the Transvaal mines, sent what money he could back to the family in Transkei. His mother, limited by her lack of literacy skills, had to work on a subsistence farm to supplement the family income.
Hani and his siblings walked 25 km to school each week day, and the same distance to church on Sundays. Hani became an altar boy at the age of eight and was a devout Catholic. He wanted to become a priest but his father would not give him permission to enter the seminary.
When the South African government introduced the Black Education Act (1953), which formalised the segregation of black schooling and laid the foundation for ‘Bantu Education’, Hani became aware of the limitations that the Apartheid system imposed on his future: “[t]his angered and outraged us and paved the way for my involvement in the struggle.“.1 In 1956, at the start of the Treason Trial, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) – his father was already an ANC activist – and in 1957 he joined the ANC Youth League. (One of his teachers at school, Simon Makana, may have been significant in this decision – Makana later became the ANC ambassador to Moscow.)
Hani matriculated from Lovedale High School in 1959 and went to university at Fort Hare to study modern and classical literature in English, Greek and Latin. (Hani is said to have identified with the plight of Roman commoners suffering under the control of its nobility.) Fort Hare had a reputation as a liberal campus, and it was here that Hani was exposed to the Marxist philosophy that influenced his future career.
The Extension of University Education Act (1959) had put an end to black students attending white universities (mainly the universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand) and created separate tertiary institutions for whites, Coloured, blacks, and Asians. Hani was active in campus protests over the takeover of Fort Hare by the Department of Bantu Education. He graduated in 1961 with a BA in Classics and English, just ahead of being expelled for political activism.
Hani’s uncle had been active in the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), an organisation founded in 1921 but which had dissolved itself in response to the Suppression of Communism Act (1950). Ex-Communist Party members had to operate in secret, and had re-formed themselves as the underground South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1953.
In 1961, after a move to Cape Town, Hani joined the SACP. The following year he joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the militant wing of the ANC. With his high level of education, he quickly rose through the ranks; within months he was a member of the leadership cadre, the Committee of Seven. In 1962 Hani was arrested for the first of several times under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1963, having tried and exhausted all the possible legal appeals against conviction, he followed his father into exile in Lesotho, a small country landlocked within South Africa.
From Exile to Assassination
Hani was sent to the Soviet Union for military training and returned in 1967 to take an active role in the Rhodesian bush war, acting as a Political Commissar in the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA). ZIPRA, under the command of Joshua Nkomo, operated out of Zambia. Hani was present for three battles during the ‘Wankie Campaign’ (fought in the Wankie Game Reserve against Rhodesian forces) as part of the Luthuli Detachment of combined ANC and Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) forces.
Although the campaign provided much-needed propaganda for the struggle in Rhodesia and South Africa, in military terms it was a failure. Far too often the local population informed on guerrilla groups to the police. In early 1967 Hani narrowly escaped into Botswana, only to be arrested and detained in prison for two years for weapons possession. Hani returned to Zambia at the end of 1968 to continue his work with ZIPRA.
In 1973 Hani transferred to Lesotho. Here he organised units of the MK for guerrilla operations in South Africa. By 1982, Hani had become prominent enough in the ANC to be the focus of several assassination attempts, including at least one car bomb. He was transferred from the Lesotho capital, Maseru, to the centre of the ANC political leadership in Lusaka, Zambia. That year he was elected to the membership of the ANC National Executive Committee, and by 1983 he had been promoted to Political Commissar of the MK, working with student recruits who joined the ANC in exile after the 1976 uprising.
When dissident ANC members, who were being held in detention camps in Angola, mutinied against their harsh treatment in 1983–4, Hani played a key role in the uprisings’ suppression – although he denied any involvement in the subsequent torture and murders. Hani continued to rise through the ANC ranks and in 1987 he became the Chief of Staff of the MK. During the same period he rose to senior membership of the SACP.
After the unbanning of ANC and SACP on 2 February 1990 Hani returned to South Africa and became a charismatic and popular speaker in townships. By 1990 he was known to be a close associate of Joe Slovo, the General-Secretary of the SACP and both Slovo and Hani were considered fearful figures in the eyes of South Africa’s extreme right: the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB, Afrikaner Resistance Movement) and the Conservative Party (CP). When Slovo announced that he had cancer in 1991, Hani took over as General-Secretary.
In 1992 Hani stepped down as Chief of Staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe to devote more time to the organisation of the SACP. Communists were prominent in the ANC and the Council of South African Trade Unions, but were under threat – the collapse of Marxism in Europe had discredited the movement world wide, and the policy of infiltrating other anti-Apartheid groups rather than making an independent stand was being questioned.
Hani campaigned for the SACP in townships around South Africa, seeking to redefine its place as a national political party. It was soon doing well – better than the ANC in fact – especially amongst the young who had no real experiences of the pre-Apartheid era and no commitment to the democratic ideals of the more moderate Mandela et al.
Hani is described as charming, passionate and charismatic, and soon attracted a cult-like following. He was the only political leader who seemed to have influence over the radical township self-defence groups that had parted from the authority of the ANC. Hani’s SACP would have proved a serious match for the ANC in the 1994 elections.
On 10 April 1993, as he returned home to the racially mixed suburb of Dawn Park, Boksberg (Johannesburg), Hani was assassinated by Januzs Walus, an anti-Communist Polish refugee who had close links to the white nationalist AWB. Also implicated in the assassination was Conservative Party MP Clive Derby-Lewis. Hani’s death came at a critical time for South Africa. The SACP was on the brink of becoming a significant status as an independent political party – it now found itself bereft of funds (due to collapse in Europe) and without a strong leader – and the democratic process was faltering. The assassination helped persuade the bickering negotiators of the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum to finally set a date for South Africa’s first democratic election.
Walus and Derby-Lewis were captured, sentenced and jailed within an incredibly short period (only six months) of the assassination. Both were sentenced to death. In a peculiar twist, the new government (and constitution) they had actively fought against, caused in their sentences being commuted to life imprisonment – the death penalty having been ruled ‘unconstitutional’. In 1997 Walus and Derby-Lewis applied for amnesty through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings. Despite claims that they were working for the Conservative Party, and therefore the assassination had been a political act, the TRC effectively ruled that Hani had been assassinated by right-wing extremists who were apparently acting independently. Walus and Derby-Lewis are currently serving their sentence in a maximum security prison near Pretoria.