The South African military leader and politician Chris Hani (1942–1993) was a major figure in the struggle against the apartheid system in South Africa. Rising through the ranks to become general secretary of South Africa's Communist Party, Hani was widely admired among young black South Africans. He was assassinated during the critical period in which apartheid was being dismantled, and his death sparked unrest that threatened to derail the country's movement toward democracy.
Chris Hani was born in Sabalele in the Cofimvaba district of Transkei, South Africa. An all-black homeland for Xhosa-speaking native people, Transkei was a “Bantustan,” one of ten areas wherein whiteruled South Africa segregated the black ethnic population under a system known as apartheid. In 1963, Transkei would become the first of four bantustans to be designated as nominally independent countries by South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster, an act that further entrenched his government's system of racial segregation. In response to Vorster's action, the oppositional African National Congress (ANC) announced that the move “was designed to consolidate the inhuman policies of apartheid.” Transkei became part of South Africa's Eastern Cape province in 1994 and was renamed Mthatha 20 years later.
Martin Thembisile Hani was born June 28, 1942, the fifth of six children born to Gilbert and Mary Hani; only three of the children, including Chris, survived infancy. Gilbert Hani was a miner and unskilled construction worker who was frequently absent from the family home, and Mary Hani helped the family survive by raising food on their small farm. Hani walked 20 kilometers to and from school weekly, and then the same distance to and from church on Sunday. Raised as a Catholic, he was devout as a child. For a time he aspired to a career as a priest, but his parents removed him from a Catholic school and enrolled him in public school.
At first, Hani kept his activist tendencies under wraps, and in 1959 he won admission to the University of Fort Hare, a historically black institution whose distinguished alumni included activists Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Desmond Tutu. Here he had his first exposure to Marxist political thought. The young man's main interest, academically, was not political struggle but English literature and the classics of ancient Greece and Rome. “My studies of literature further strengthened my hatred of all forms of oppression, persecution and obscurantism,” Hani later wrote in an autobiographical essay posted on the South African Communist Party website. For the rest of his life he retained a fondness for tailored clothes and classic English literature. Meanwhile, in 1961, Hani joined the South African Communist Party. He also transferred to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, graduating the following year with majors in Latin and English.
Following college, Hani took a job as a clerk with the law firm of Schaefer & Schaefer but soon dropped out. His career as a political outlaw began when he was arrested at a police roadblock and charged with possession of communist literature—actually some pamphlets that argued against the government's policy of detention without trial.
Granted bail, he fled the country for Botswana. He was arrested in Lusaka, Zambia when he tried to return, put on trial, and sentenced to 18 months in prison. While appealing his sentence, he was released from prison and in 1963 went underground. For several months, Hani he stayed below police radar in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Then, on the orders of his ANC superiors, he and 30 other young ANC members departed for the U.S.S.R. for training in guerrilla warfare.
In 1964 Hani returned to Africa, landing in Tanzania. The sympathetic government there had offered land to the Umkhonto weSizwe (known as MK), an armed wing of the revolutionary ANC, for a training camp. Hani was put in charge of organizing the camp, which eventually grew to a force of 500 volunteers. Dismayed by the low level of literacy among his forces, he began teaching adult basiceducation courses at the camp. He also did journalistic writing during this period.
In 1966 Hani moved again, this time to Zambia, where he helped train forces attempting to overthrow the white minority government in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The following year, he was arrested in Botswana for illegal arms possession; he was jailed there and in Zambia, and was finally freed in 1969.
For several years, Hani lived in Maseru, Lesotho, where he studied military communications and gained expertise in getting messages to the MK fighters then being infiltrated into South Africa. Such activities spread his fame, as did his call for workers to sabotage elements of the government's war machine by introducing sugar and sand into the workings government trucks being manufactured in factories. A broadside known as the “Hani Memorandum” leveled several charges against the ANC leadership and endeared him to the movement's ordinary rank and file. In 1970, Hani joined the central committee of the Communist Party, and in 1974 he traveled to communist East Germany for further guerrilla command training. The following year he was named to the ANC's executive committee.
In 1981, just as his family was growing to include a third daughter, Hani became the target of the first of several assassination attempts via car bomb in Maseru, Lesotho. The following year a second attempt failed when a bomb exploded in the hands of Hani's potential assassin. He and his family moved to an area of Maseru called Kuane Flats, which was home to many ANC members and deemed relatively safe. However, on December 9, 1982, the complex was raided by South African forces, leaving 42 ANC members as well as 12 civilians dead, among them women and children. Perhaps the target of this raid, Hani was not home at the time. After more attempts on his life, Hani was sent to Lusaka, Zambia, and then to Maputo, Mozambique.
Hani's attitudes toward violence against civilians evolved in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the South Africa government began to discuss and then move toward ending the apartheid system. “I don't think most whites want to die for apartheid,” he was quoted as saying in 1988, according to the New York Times. “Our intention is to make them see, so that when they are maimed and they are in hospital, others will go there to visit them and will say: this is the price of apartheid.” As the democratization process gathered momentum, however, he moderated his view, asserting that the anti-apartheid struggle was not aimed at destroying whites as a group, but toward replacement of the apartheid system. Hani was sometimes seen as a bridgebuilder between ANC policymakers and more militant black activists, many of them radicalized young people.
In 1990, the year ANC leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison, South African president F.W. de Klerk allowed Hani to return from exile. The ANC and the country's communist party were legalized that same year. The following year, Hani was chosen by party members as general secretary of the South African Communist Party, replacing longtime and ailing leader, Joe Slovo. In 1992 he was one of the leaders of the march that resulted in the Bisho Massacre, in which 28 ANC marchers were killed by forces loyal to the Ciskei Bantustan, a homeland that, like Hani's native Transkai, was inhabited by Xhosa-speaking blacks. After the ANC affirmed its support for private property rights and preparations for free elections gathered force, Hani left the organization of which he had been a member for more than 30 years. As he announcing plans to form a new socialist group, some observers speculated that he planned a run for president of South Africa.
In 1974, Hani had married Limpho Sekamane, and the couple raised three children. On the night of April 10, 1993, in the Dawn Park area of the Johannesburg suburb of Boksburg, he was at home with his family, having given his bodyguards the evening off. He went out alone to buy groceries and was shot and killed by Polish immigrant and right-wing white extremist Janusz Walus. Walus and Clive-Derby Lewis, a pro-apartheid member of the South African parliament, together with Clive's wife Gaye, were arrested and charged with planning Hani's murder. Gaye Derby-Lewis was acquitted, but Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis were convicted and imprisoned.
Unrest flared after Hani's death, but ANC leader Mandela and his organizers appealed for calm and succeeded in tamping down the worst of the violence. Mandela made a televised speech urging peace on April 14, 1994, and 12 days later de Klerk announced a date for democratic elections.
Hani remains a revered figure in modern-day South Africa. In 1997, Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg's Soweto area, the largest in the world outside China, was renamed Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. Although Clive Derby-Lewis was released from prison in 2016, suffering from terminal cancer; Walus remained in custody as legal proceedings continued.
Davis, Stephen M., Apartheid's Rebels: Inside South Africa's Hidden War, Yale University Press, 1987.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 12, 1993, p. a1. New York Times, June 12, 1988; April 15, 1993; August 14, 1997.
South African Communist Party website, http://www.sacp.org.za/ (September 5, 2016), Chris Hani, “My Life: An Autobiography Written in 1991.”
South African History website, http://www.sahistory.org.za/ (July 21, 2016), “Thembisile ‘Chris’ Hani.”
African National Congress Press Release, number GA/5498, October 26, 1976.❑