10 April 2015 marks the 22nd anniversary of the tragic assassination of Chris Hani, a legendary freedom fighter and one of the most courageous and talented leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle. Although he was only 50 at the time of his death, Hani’s contribution to the struggle was that of several lifetimes.
Born in 1942 in the Transkei, he was politicised by the sheer poverty that he saw around him in his early life. He joined the ANC’s Youth League at the age of 15, and quickly went on to become a dedicated organiser. As a student radical at the University of Fort Hare (whose alumni include Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda), he was recruited to the South African Communist Party (SACP) by the veteran anti-apartheid leader, Govan Mbeki. In 1962, Hani became a member of the newly-formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) – the military wing of the ANC – and it was above all his heroic activities in this organisation over the course of three decades that led to his well-deserved reputation as one of the most important figures in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Regenerating the struggle
Throughout the 1950s, the ANC’s stock had grown as a result of its effective disobedience and defiance campaigns along with its propaganda work. The Freedom Charter, which put forward the core principles of the Congress Alliance (which included the ANC, the SACP, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress), was adopted in 1955 at the Congress of the People and became a rallying cry for opponents of apartheid across the country.
However, with the banning of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and other liberation organisations in 1960; the introduction of ever more repressive laws; and the Rivonia Trial of 1963 – which saw the imprisonment of almost the entire leadership of the MK (including Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu) – the movement had hit a low point by the mid-1960s. Underground activity inside South Africa was almost non-existent, and the exile movement had not yet become an effective force.
At this point, a critical lifeline was offered by the Soviet Union, which provided financial support and extensive military training to hundreds of MK cadres, including Hani (as detailed at length in Vladimir Shubin’s book, ANC – A View From Moscow’). Tanzania and Zambia, which gained their independence from Britain in 1961 and 1964 respectively, allowed the ANC and MK to set up bases in their newly liberated territories, and Hani was involved in setting up the first military camps of South African liberation fighters.
In 1967, Hani led an operation to insert ANC and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) troops into Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), with a view to opening up infiltration roots into South Africa. Militarily the campaign was far from successful – ending as it did in the loss of more than half the cadres and a forced retreat into Botswana – and yet it raised the spirits of black South Africans at an exceptionally difficult period for the liberation struggle. As Nelson Mandela says in ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, “it was a milestone in the struggle” to see MK cadres engaged militarily with the enemy for the first time, even killing some soldiers of the racist Rhodesian regime.
Hani noted at the time:
“This was a virgin victory for us, since we had never fought with modern weapons against the enemy. For us that day was a day of celebration because with our own eyes we had seen the enemy run. We had seen the enemy frozen with fear … We had also seen and observed each other reacting to the enemy’s attack. A feeling of faith in one another and recognition of the courage of the unit developed.” (cited in Shubin)
Veteran people’s lawyer Albie Sachs noted that this operation (known as the Wankie Campaign, owing to its location in the Wankie Game Reserve) turned Hani into “an admired leader … he’d been in combat and now had an unofficial, intangible sense of authority”. (More can be read about the campaign here)
Deepening the armed struggle
By the mid-1970s, Hani was at the head of an MK base in Lesotho, the purpose of which was to reinfiltrate small groups of cadres back into South Africa for short periods in order to organise armed sabotage cells. Hani was one of the first to be reinfiltrated, in 1974, successfully avoiding the South African intelligence services and setting up several cells in Johannesburg, before making his way back over the border four months later. Chris wrote of that period:
“Now we were actually building a number of units from Lesotho into South Africa … We built a network of structures inside the country. We trained people in guerrilla affairs, in politics, in intelligence and everything else … Those were exciting days for me because I was receiving these cadres coming from the Transvaal, from the Orange Free State, from the Cape and Natal. I was in touch with trade unions. I used to go in and out. Meet comrades at Sterkspruit in Transkei. I used to send some of my colleagues from our collective in Lesotho to Cape Town, to Johannesburg, to Durban for a few days. We had little meetings and discussed strategy… We began to build education groups inside Lesotho. We prepared them in terms of understanding the ANC and our struggle. We would select the best to send back into the country underground. We would say: go and form a cell or two, then come back. We are giving you a week … all the theory that we had acquired in our training and our limited experience we began to apply creatively in a new situation. And for me that was a turning point in terms of our struggle.” (cited in ‘Hani: A Life Too Short’ by Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp)
This activity quickly became the main theatre of the armed struggle. The operations stepped up in a serious way after 1976, as thousands of young militant South Africans were forced out of the country in the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising. These young people were ready to fight, and eagerly joined the MK’s camps in Tanzania and Zambia. Chris, who by this time had been placed on the ANC’s Revolutionary Council (and was Assistant General Secretary of the SACP), was at the forefront of providing military training and political education for these new recruits.
“All those who worked with Hani noted his humility, his charm, his deep concern for the troops, and his incorruptibility – refusing to enjoy the privileges that his reputation might have earned him, and eating, sleeping and training with his comrades” (op cit).
In an interview with the ANC journal Mayibuye in 1985, Hani spoke of the need to extend the war into the white areas in order to create greater pressure for the dismantling of apartheid:
“It’s a situation of complete ruthlessness, of acts of atrocities against the blacks in our country. Now, in the face of that situation, it is important that the whites should realise that our country is in a state of civil war, because nothing is taking place where they stay. Their suburbs are still pictures of peace and stability and the usual rhythm of life continues. Their lives are not disturbed… Life for white South Africans is good. They go to their cinemas, they go to their barbecues, they go to their five-star hotels. That’s why they are supporting the system. It guarantees a happy life for them, a sweet life. Part of our campaign is to prevent that sweet life.”
Through this revolutionary upsurge in South Africa, the liberation forces started to break the back of apartheid. Hani’s key role led to him being made MK’s political commissar in 1982 and its chief of staff four years later.
Return to South Africa
In April 1990, Hani was able to return to South Africa on a provisional amnesty order from the white government, as it inched towards a negotiated settlement. He immediately began working tirelessly, travelling the country to educate people about the political process taking place and also to raise their socialist consciousness. He was everywhere received with undisguised joy, perhaps second only to Nelson Mandela in popularity.
Although he had been a military man for nearly thirty years, Chris strongly believed in the peace process. He understood only too well that the revolutionary forces were not strong enough to defeat the South African state outright, but that the combination of armed and mass struggle, described by Nelson Mandela as the liberation movement’s hammer and anvil, could together force a negotiated solution which would move the overall freedom struggle many important steps forward. Hani stated: “In the current political situation, the decision by our organisation to suspend armed action is correct and is an important contribution in maintaining the momentum of negotiation”. And just a few days before his death, he said : “The issue now is not armed struggle but elections. That needs a climate of peace and stability; we cannot afford to have that process delayed and disrupted by violent elements … Every ANC supporter should be a combatant, but a combatant now for peace.”
In December 1991, Hani was elected to the post of general secretary of the SACP, and gave up his post as MK chief of staff in order to focus on grassroots development of the party. By this time it was fairly clear that the apartheid era was coming to an end, and Chris saw the need to consolidate the position of the left within the Congress alliance, in order to push for the specific interests of the workers and peasants in the post-apartheid era. This was consistent with the vision he had always had, articulated in some brief autobiographical notes he wrote in 1991: “In 1961 I joined the underground South African Communist Party as I realised that national liberation, though essential, would not bring about total economic liberation.”
Communism and the struggle against apartheid
Hani described his enduring commitment to socialism and the SACP in the following terms:
“Why did I join the SACP? 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 time 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 away – generally a life of poverty with the basic things unavailable. Where our mothers and our sisters would walk 3km and even 6km whenever there was a drought to fetch water. Where the only fuel available was going 5-6 km away to cut wood and bring it back.
“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. 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.” (cited in Smith and Tromp)
One important – and controversial – issue related to the life of Chris Hani is the relationship between the struggle for socialism and the struggle for national liberation; and more specifically, between the ANC and the SACP. This relationship has been under almost constant attack from the 1930s onwards. The apartheid regime and its western imperialist backers used the relationship to ‘prove’ that the anti-apartheid struggle was simply part of an evil Soviet plot against western-style freedom and democracy. Meanwhile, there were plenty of people within the anti-apartheid camp who opposed the relationship on the basis that the SACP was allegedly white-dominated and that Marxism was an imported ideology that was not relevant for Africans.
Nelson Mandela comments on this issue in ‘Long Walk to Freedom’:
“It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accepted communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression are a luxury we cannot afford at this stage. What is more, for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with and work with us. Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism.”
The fact is that the communists were extremely consistent in their support of the national liberation goals of the Congress movement, and proved themselves in struggle to be capable, courageous fighters and strategists. Indeed, the SACP “has the distinction of being the first organisation in the history of Africa to call unambiguously for black majority rule on the basis of universal suffrage. This was at a time when even the ANC stopped short of this demand.” (Statement of the SACP Central Committee in 1976)
Longtime ANC President Oliver Tambo notes:
“There was a time when anti-communism reared its head in the ANC and there were often moves for the removal of communists from ANC ranks, but … to all intents and purposes we are running a common struggle together.” Pointing out that the leading members of the Party were also leading members of the ANC, Tambo said: “From my experience, you could not have asked for more loyalty.” (cited in Shubin)
In another interview, in response to the question “is the ANC under the undue influence of white communists?”, Tambo responded:
“I don’t know where these white communists are. When I ask who they mean, they reply: Joe Slovo. When I ask who else, they are silent. It is extraordinary how white communists are credited with so much power and influence and supremacy and superiority. Why are we not being influenced by black communists? And why can’t the influence go the other way? Individual members of the Communist Party are like any member of the ANC … Our movement has never hidden the fact that there is a relationship between the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party on those questions of policy which both organisations share in common. In particular both organisations believe that in the present stage of the revolutionary process in South Africa, the primary aim is the national liberation of the most exploited and most oppressed section of the South African people – the Africans.”
The ANC-SACP alliance also helped to cement Soviet, Eastern European and Cuban support for the liberation struggle, which proved to be invaluable.
Looking towards a non-racial future
Another important and controversial issue relating to Chris Hani’s legacy is that of the ANC/SACP policy of non-racialism: the idea that the struggle against apartheid, whilst primarily fought in the interests of the most oppressed group (black Africans), was also a struggle to transcend the division of society along racial lines, and that therefore the struggle should embrace people of all races, so long as they were genuinely committed to a non-racial democracy.
The ANC’s Strategy and Tactics paper – one of its defining documents – outlines the policy as follows:
“This confrontation on the lines of colour is not of our choosing; it is of the enemy’s making. It will not be easy to eliminate some of its more tragic consequences. But it does not follow that this will be so for all time. It is not altogether impossible that in a different situation the white working class, or a substantial section of it, may come to see that their true long term interest coincides with that of the non-white workers. We must miss no opportunity to try and make them aware of this truth and to win over those who are ready to break with the policy of racial domination … Our policy must continually stress in the future (as it has in the past) that there is room in South Africa for all who live in it but only on the basis of absolute democracy … Committed revolutionaries are our brothers, regardless of the group to which they belong. There can be no second class participants in our Movement. It is for the enemy we reserve our assertiveness and our justified sense of grievance.”
Tambo also elaborated on this idea: “We call upon those in the white community who stand ready to live a life of real equality and nonracialism to make common cause with our struggle for genuine liberation … In sharp contrast to the racists who have sought to divide our country and people into racial and ethnic compartments, we have upheld the ideal of one country, one people and one democratic and nonracial destiny for all who live in it, black and white.”
The close links between the liberation movement and the Soviet Union likely had an important role in affirming the ANC’s non-racial perspective. In their biography of Hani, Smith and Tromp describe his first visit to the Soviet Union (in the early 1960s):
“In the USSR now, the men were witnesses to the way a powerful nation was run. For Hani, having joined the Communist Party a mere two years earlier, but having read extensively on socialism and Marxism, it was the culmination of theory, reading, imagining… There were no beggars and no blatant poverty. The activity in the city was frenetic: houses being built on one side, flats on the other. Later the men marvelled at the fact that education and medical attention were free to all. This was the product of the revolution. All the propaganda, the lies cranked out by the Western imperialists denouncing life in the Soviet Union, had been disproved.
“For some of the cadres, this was the first time they had experienced compassion, understanding and support from white people. This treatment strengthened their will to fight for a nonracial society.
“With three square meals a day cooked by white women, and being taught by white instructors, this was ‘a new world of equality where our colour seems to be of no consequence … where our humanity is recognised,’ wrote Hani.”
Although the policy of non-racialism was criticised harshly and frequently by separatist elements within the movement, it proved its value in practice, creating a highly effective fighting alliance, and providing a vision that the masses could relate to.
The legacy of Chris Hani
Chris Hani was murdered on 10 April 1993 in Johannesburg by a fascist gunman by the name of Janusz Waluś, who was working with a senior Conservative Party MP on a plot to assassinate a number of prominent liberation fighters and thereby spark a civil war along race lines, derailing the negotiations to end apartheid. Their plot was unsuccessful, as the massive wave of shock and grief at Hani’s death was channelled towards a new momentum in the peace process. South Africa’s first democratic election – one of the most historic events of the twentieth century – took place a year later, on 27 April 1994.
Looking at some of the problems that South Africa still suffers today, it seems obvious that Hani would have been hugely important in the search for solutions. His words just two weeks before his death were prophetic:
“I think finally the ANC will have to fight a new enemy. That enemy would be another struggle to make freedom and democracy worthwhile to ordinary South Africans. Our biggest enemy would be what we do in the field of socio-economic restructuring. Creation of jobs; building houses, schools, medical facilities; overhauling our education; eliminating illiteracy, building a society which cares, and fighting corruption and moving into the gravy train of using power, government position to enrich individuals. We must build a different culture in this country… and that culture should be one of service to the people”.
Chris was a relentless voice for the poor and oppressed, a legend of the struggle, a man of the people who had the confidence and support of the radical youth. As Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography: “He was a great hero among the youth of South Africa, a man who spoke their language and to whom they listened. South Africa was now deprived of one of its greatest sons, a man who would have been invaluable in transforming the country into a new nation.”
Mandela’s moving words at Hani’s funeral perhaps give an indication of the type of man that the world lost on 10 April 1993:
“I would like to address a final word to Chris himself – comrade, friend and confidant. We worked together in the National Executive Committee of the ANC. We had vigorous debates and an intense exchange of ideas. You were completely unafraid. No task was too small for you to perform. Your ready smile and warm friendship was a source of strength and companionship. You lived in my home, and I loved you like the true son you were. In our heart, as in the heart of all our people, you are irreplaceable. We have been struck a blow that wounds so deeply that the scars will remain forever. You laid down your life so that we may know freedom. No greater sacrifice is possible.
“We lay you to rest with the pledge that the day of freedom you lived and died for will dawn. We all owe you a debt that can only be repaid through the achievement of the liberation of our people, which was the passion of your life. Fighter, revolutionary, soldier for peace, we mourn deeply for you. You will remain in our hearts forever!”
The memory of Chris Hani should strengthen the resolve of all those on the side of socialism and national liberation. Ho Chi Minh correctly pointed out that, “in order to become truly deserving revolutionaries, all of us must follow the examples of heroism, of utter devotion to the public interest and complete selflessness… of those who watered with their blood the tree of Revolution which has now bloomed and borne fruit.” Hani’s legacy sets an example for us all to follow.