Chris Hani – and my part in South Africa’s downfall


For a brief time in the late 1980’s I had occasion to spend some time with Chris Hani, then Chief of Staff of the ANC’s uMkhonto we Sizwe and Secretary General of the South African Communist Party.

I was working for the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA) and a meeting between the ANC’s military and the South African Defence Force seemed like a natural extension and deepening of the work IDASA had done in putting the white establishment in contact with the ANC.

I met Chris several times in Lusaka where we prepared the agenda – and then, obviously, at the conference and several times afterwards.

He was an interesting guy – serious, charming and slightly too ready to tell me the story of how he travelled, through the underground, into danger, with Pliny, Virgil  and Shakespeare in his knapsack … I’m not perfectly sure of the actual authors and titles of the classics he carried, but the point was that he mentioned, more than once, that he did so.

I was already aware in those days of the depth of murderous gangsterism that had enveloped Joe Modise’s leadership of MK – a trend and tendency he took with him into Mandela’s first cabinet and helped set the ANC’s elite on the course for the destination it has reached.

Chris was the great hope for cleaning up Modise’s mess and he was also seen as an antidote to Thabo Mbeki’s technocratic shuttle-diplomacy.

I became aware while organising the conference that some ANC strategists were using the opportunity to show Chris Hani was just as charming and able to talk to whites as Mbeki.

I asked him, in my naivety, about the rumours that he and Mbeki were competitors. He convincingly, to my ears, pooh-poohed the idea saying that he and Thabo were like a tag team, each with his own strengths, but united in the identical goal – and further, he claimed, they were good friends as well.

I had no special intelligence to validate (or otherwise) this claim. Perhaps they were. Perhaps they would have been the A-Team of the post Mandela administration, balancing each other’s faults, playing to each other’s strengths. I know it’s unlikely, but it is difficult not to dream of how things might have been.

As it happened Chris was almost disturbingly charming and persuasive at the conference.

We only managed to get ex-SADF and Bantustan leaders as well as a whole lot of shady and not so shady military and arms dealer types on the domestic delegation.

I have reason to suspect that I might have brought the running dogs of the global arms trade along with that delegation and I often shudder at the thought that I might have played a role in helping the global arms corporations bury their deadly wasp eggs deep into the ANC, later to hatch and gorge themselves just carefully enough so that the host stays alive … but I comfort myself with the fact that Joe Modise had long since sold his and the ANC’s soul to the worst and most rapacious branch of global capitalism.

I remember watching Chris holding forth late one night; he stood behind two seated and coyly smiling white men with thick rugby players necks – there is a reason stereotypes are stereotypes! Chris had a hand on each of their shoulders and he was rubbing them as he spoke with languid and swelling rhythms, about the future of non-racialism and shared patriotism that awaited us.

The big white guys were in love; it gleamed out of their teary eyes and Chris had his head back and eyes closed like he was conducting an exorcism.

I don’t know if Chris Hani would have made a difference if he had lived.

Only a precious few have managed to resist the seemingly irresistible pull towards corruption and greed. You watch all of your friends and comrades become part of that system (the same system that laid its eggs in the ANC that would later hatch into the Arms Scandal and worse), the memory of the ideals that drove you become vague … everyone else is doing it, what is the point in me hanging on while they are all busy with the business of securing themselves for life?

It was Tokyo Sexwale who wept beside Chris Hani’s body on 10th April 1993 outside the house in Boksburg. There was something about Chris that reminds me of Tokyo Sexwale (who I do not know personally but seems to exude a similar charisma that makes one think of a suspiciously charming pirate).

Reading Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble over the weekend and getting the insight provided by Fikile Mbalula flattening a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue in Kebble’s home … Mbalula and his ANC Youth League comrades treating the servants with extreme arrogance, trashing the house like spoiled children … it is difficult not to be filled with a sense of loss and longing.

Mbalula was 9 18 (oops) years old when I sat with Chris Hani in Lusaka planning how best to drive wedges into Apartheid’s army and win any potential enemies to our side.

I don’t know for sure what he would have thought of this thrust to catapult the “new generation” of leadership into power in 2012 – including, horrifyingly, Fikile Mbalula for Secretary General.

But I suspect he would have drawn the line here. The ANC is not yet in the hands of  Mbalula and his cronies – who are so reminiscent of Joe Modise, only slightly more refined.

There have always been heroes in the liberation movement who fought the tendency towards cronyism and rent-seeking abuse. I thought Chris Hani was in the process of becoming one of those when I worked with him in the late 80’s.

Like James Dean and Jesus Christ, Chris Hani’s virtues are frozen as an historical artefact.

There is a part of me that is relieved he will never be tried and found wanting.

(Note: my friend the fabulous artist Isabel Thompson helped organise that conference and my fellow Bruce Springsteen fan and mentor to so many of us Gavin Evans took the pics and posted them on facebook which is where I found them.)

14 thoughts on “Chris Hani – and my part in South Africa’s downfall

  1. Another 10 days of world shaking? I am starting to wonder whether the various feelings of loss, betrayal and disillusionment which are emerging, once again, need finally be to translated into tough decisions about public and electoral support.

    1. Scary question for me Paul. To speak plainly I think you are asking why “we” … that difficult to remember but very specific species of white leftists from within and around the 80′s ANC underground as well as allies and fellow travellers amongst certain Christian and student youth groups – and that whole gaggle of End Conscription Campaign types …. why “we” are not overtly and proudly pulling in behind Helen Z’s feisty and, clearly, mostly correct and principles Democratic Alliance. Yes? It’s a good question and I suspect the answer is not pretty. There are certain stylistic aspects to the DA’s politics, particularly the preponderance of young (and not so young) arrogant, smug white men amongst it’s brain trust … although clearly this crew (none of whom I will name here) is not as bad as the moral equivalent you will find in the ANC Youth League … although, hmmm, I still tend to think that little group of (inappropriately) smug and arrogant white male bullies at the strategic core of the DA are as bad as anything you will find in the ANC alliance. But I am skirting the question … if you are really asking it …. why don’t “we” come out in support of the DA – when we agree with its policies, admire its governance and generally support its criticism of the ANC? Before I stick my neck out any further, let me ask you: is this question you are asking? Are you asking: given your criticism of the ANC and the ruling elite, why are you not supporting and encouraging support of the DA?

  2. Hi Nic,
    Good piece….! Thanks- sensitively written…it really is hard not to become despondent at the increasing venality we witness in public life. This weekend’s example particularly distressing. And silence from the ANC.

    1. Hi Judith – I so agree with you … and thanks for commenting here. Several of my friends sent me private emails about that piece asking if I was “depressed” or “down” … because that tone was implied. I suppose my sadness at Chris Hani’s murder comes through in the piece … and my deeper regret at the path the ruling elite has taken; the fact that not only has the ANC been unable to stop the rot, but is often the platform that launches the most rotten into the increasingly manky peach of our national economy. I have wanted to ask you so often about the ANC attacking you, accusing you of fronting DA views etc. …. this point goes to my question to Paul Graham (which you should see below this comment) and his statement/question to me (above) … do you feel the need to take a public stand on party support? Obviously both you, me and Graham are to different degrees “professional analysts” of one kind or another, and we can’t very well be seen to be punting one party over another. But the elections are around the corner … the moral and intellectual lines are being drawn on the sand … are we required, by history and by our own ethics, to trend one way or another? I really don’t have an answer and, very unusually for me, I am just putting it out there in an attempt to resolve it for myself.

  3. Hi Nic;

    Thank you for letting us glimpse the side of Chris Hani we never knew. I have never met Chris – all I know is from writings I have got hold of.

    On the point of leadership positions: Positions are highly contested and with the advent of democracy the one who is good at amassing majority flowers is always a winner. The painful truth about democracy is that it is the tyranny of the majority. In most democracies not the best leader is choose but the one who is good at marketing and have influential friends win. I for one doesn’t believe democracy is the best. Igo for consensus because even the voice of the minority has a place.

    In democracy the winner takes all and democracy can be manipulated. Those in power or who want power feel threatened by anyone who show the signs of potential. That’s why chances are many that if you are ambitious you can be eliminated. Chris and Thabo were not friends but adversaries, if Chris lived he would have been a threat to TM’s ambition to lead the ANC.

    Cronysm will never end as comrades feel indebted to others and it is natural to bring your friends closer to you than those you suspect to be competitors.

    Yes Chris had a vision, but we don’t know what would have happened if he lived. People change and power is corruptive and once you have power you don’t want to let go.

    Thank you again

    Have a nice day.

  4. Is it time for people to vote for the DA? Possibly – but my point was a bit broader. 21 years into the transition to a constitutional democracy, and after the fourth president and fourth parliament, it seems to be time to behave as though we do have real politics in South Africa. That means making tough personal choices about the performance of individual politicians and political parties based on the facts on the ground and not merely on intention, rhetoric or sentimental attachment. I know that this is a tall ask – after all once a Swedish social democratic or an American republican, always … So why should it be different in South Africa. My view is that the stakes have now become too high for obfuscation. The society needs clear headed honesty, and the ANC needs a shake up. Either this is done in the branch or at the ballot. Anecdotal evidence together with the very strange results of local government nomination processes suggests that the branches may no longer be an appropriate site of struggle. That leaves the ballot and the public domain. My comment is that people need to start making choices. If this means voting for an individual or party for strategic reasons even if one does not feel personally close to them, I am starting to believe it should be done.

    Because this blog seems to be about personal choices, i should say I voted for a PAC faction in the national elections, knowing that their one likely representative had a good parliamentary track record. But every election brings it own candidates and its own choices.

    Chauvinism, the coalescence of party and state, a drift to unreflective materialism, and a willingness to allow the state apparatus to behave badly, as it did in Ficksburg yesterday, mean that voting for the party of one’s political birth can no longer be a taken for granted action.

  5. Welcome. Yes back for a litttle bit. Yep that was a once in a life time opportunity down the drain. Great pity, but none worse the wear for it fortunately.

  6. There’ll never be another Chris. Let’s help conscioutise one another on how real democracy is like. What multiparty’s social, political & economic implications are,how expensive, and how of a disguise it also is. The revolution does not end, as enemies are within. Power is busy drifting away from the masses. Then capital/elite will own the Society, and the jungle sword rule will tear the masses apart. Lessons from Latin America(1950s<) are enough. Democracy belongs to the people, and only the people protect it. Know my biggest worry, creating basis for the creation of knowledge.

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