Chris Hani's Assassination Put South Africa On the Brink of Civil War

Luckily Mandela stepped in to save the day.

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11 April 2013, 4:00pm


Chris Hani.

Chris Hani was one of the anti-apartheid movement's most charismatic leaders and Mandela's likely future heir. "[He] often appears on public platforms in the townships wearing quasi-combat fatigues and delivering fiery speeches that arouse and delight the audience,” wrote a Pretoria-based US diplomat in a confidential 1991 cable released by Wikileaks this week. “Many observers believe that Hani would trounce Mbeki if there were a popular vote among ANC supporters,” the communique continued. But, unfortunately, that theory was never given the chance to prove itself.  

On the afternoon of the 10th of April, 1993 – 20 years ago, yesterday – Chris Hani pulled up out outside his home in Boksburg, a quiet suburb of Johannesburg. While stepping out of his car, he was being watched by Janusz Walus, a neo-Nazi Polish immigrant. "I tucked my Z-88 pistol into the back of my trouser belt and got out of my car,” Walus recalled some years later. “I didn't want to shoot him in the back. I called, 'Mr Hani'. When he turned, I drew my pistol from the belt and shot him in the stomach. As he fell, I shot a second bullet into his head. When he fell on the ground, I shot him again twice behind the ear."

Hani died instantly. Now, 20 years after his assassination, internet chatrooms still buzz with speculation both about his murder and, more poignantly, about the type of country South Africa might have been had he lived.

Hani was an important player in the delicate negotiation process that had progressed in fits-and-starts since Mandela’s release in 1990, and – at the time of Hani's death – was on the verge of a significant breakthrough. The assassin, Walus, had been sent to Boksburg to ensure that this didn't happen. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1997, Walus and former politician Clive Derby-Lewis, the other man sentenced for Hani’s murder, admitted their intent: to provoke a race war and derail a negotiation process that would inevitably lead to the end of white minority rule.

Their plan almost worked. Once a firebrand in the Che Guevara mould, former head of the African National Congress’s (ANC) armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, Hani commanded huge support among the "young lions" in the townships. “I fear for our country," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the time of his murder. "Chris Hani, more than anyone else, had the credibility among the young to rein in the radicals."

What stopped South Africa descending into civil war after the assassination was down to a combination of factors. Firstly, arresting Walus within hours of the murder helped to dispel some of the suspicions that the hit had been planned by the South African security forces. Most important, however, was a televised address to the nation that same evening by Nelson Mandela. In it, Mandela appealed to black and white South Africans to stand together against, “the men who worship war” and, “move forward to what is the only lasting solution for our country – an elected government of the people, by the people and for the people”.

Despite the violence following Hani's death, which ended up claiming more than 70 lives, the country didn't slip into a race war. Although still a significant death toll, it is perhaps a fraction of the number who no doubt would have died had it not been for Mandela and the ANC’s call for restraint.

Ironically, the assassination had the opposite effect of that intended by Walus and Derby-Lewis. Instead of leading to an explosion of violence, Hani’s murder demonstrated to white South Africa that only the ANC leadership could hold the country together. Rather than scuppering negotiations, the process was sped up and, on the 1st of June – just seven weeks after Hani’s death – the Negotiating Council agreed that the 27th of April, 1994 would be the date of South Africa's first ever non-racial democratic elections.

Twenty years on, the question of how different South Africa might have looked had Hani lived still floats above the Rainbow Nation, as do questions of what Hani would have made of the country today. “The days of Sisulu, Tambo, Mandela, Mbeki, Slovo and Hani are over,” reads another Wikileaked US cable from 2008 assessing the prospects of the ANC government. “Without a strong, intellectual centre, the party probably will struggle and become vulnerable to the phenomenon of the ‘cult of personality’ and access to state patronage.”

It's not clear whether Hani would have stayed in politics had he lived, and – if he had – whether he would have beaten Thabo Mbeki in a race to succeed Mandela to the presidency. Whatever his decision, Hani would undoubtedly have been an energetic part of the post-apartheid nation-building process that transformed South African institutions and implemented one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, all supported by an independent judiciary and a free press.

As a committed communist, Hani would have welcomed the expansion of access to housing, electricity and water across the country, but he would have no doubt been critical of the free market economic model that the ANC adopted. Nearly 20 years since the election of Mandela to power, Hani would no doubt have had much to say about the fact that one in four South Africans is unemployed and over a million people still live in shacks.

Shortly before he was killed, Hani was asked by an interviewer if he had ministerial ambitions: “The perks of a new government are not really appealing to me,” he said. “What is important is the continuation of the struggle... what we do for social upliftment of the working masses of our country.”

Follow Stefan on Twitter: @StefSimanowitz

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