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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 2, No. 7, 10 April 2003

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Tribute to Chris Hani

By: Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin (SACP General and Deputy General Secretaries)

Ten years ago, the serving general secretary of the SACP, Chris Hani was gunned down in his drive-way. South Africa appeared to be teetering on the brink. For some three years, the multi-party negotiations had stumbled along at the World Trade Centre, not very far from Hani's East Rand home. By early April 1993, the talks had been stalled for months. The De Klerk regime had still not come to terms with the inevitability of an ANC-dominated democratic government.

Looking back on the period of 1990 to 1994, many commentators now hail our "peaceful" negotiated transition. In fact, deaths and injuries in political violence had soared to unprecedented levels in the very midst of the negotiations. Death squads were unleashed on commuter trains and townships. War-lords with IFP and police connections were escorted into ANC-supporting squatter camps to shoot and plunder. This was the case in Boipatong, hostels in Soweto, Thokoza, Shell House, during the 7-day war in Pietermaritzburg, and in trains in Gauteng. Key ANC and alliance grass-roots leaders were systematically targeted and eliminated. The apartheid regime was negotiating, in a stop-start fashion, but a bitter "low" intensity conflict was part of its negotiations strategy.

Those who assassinated cde Chris admitted to the TRC that they intended to provoke a violent racial back-lash. They calculated that random revenge killings on whites would escalate into a racial civil war, putting a definitive end to any prospect of negotiations, and therefore of majority rule.

The assassination of cde Chris achieved precisely the opposite. The assassination of one of the most popular of all South African political leaders sent shock-waves through our country and throughout the world. It provoked huge waves of popular mobilisation. Many observers at the time noted that it was precisely in the days following cde Chris's death, on the streets of South Africa, that de facto power in our country shifted, finally and definitively, from the National Party government to Nelson Mandela's ANC.

While for days a speechless FW De Klerk "was attending a protracted family function" in Steynsburg, cde Mandela was anxiously shepherded onto what was still an apartheid-dominated SATV to appeal to the nation for militant calm, for resoluteness, and for a definitive date for one-person one-vote elections in our country. On the 26th of April 1993, the National Party government finally caved in, agreeing to a firm election date one-year hence. The rest is history.

All of the above is well known. But it is critical that we never cease remembering and re-telling it. How we go forward into our future is very much determined by how we recall our past. And make no mistake, the democratic transition to which cde Chris contributed so much, including his own life, is a transition whose meaning is constantly threatened by a fog of re-interpretation.

We are told that it was a "peaceful" transition - which is an insult to cde Chris, and thousands of others who died in those years. The idea of a "peaceful" transition cloaks the regime's low intensity conflict strategy in a convenient silence, and it belittles the courageous work performed by cde Chris and others in setting up self-defence units in hundreds of communities. These SDUs, so scoffed at now, were the difference between survival and death in hundreds of ANC communities. In the face of brutal and often random attacks, they gave communities some hope, and indeed, the negotiations some prospect.

We are told that our transition was a "rainbow miracle" - as if democracy descended from on high without struggle. In fact, our democratic breakthrough was the outcome of protracted struggle over many decades, if not centuries. Democracy was not a "miracle" but the outcome of a hard fought-for change in the balance of forces.

The transition is often reduced to an agreement between "wise men", obscuring mass mobilisation and struggle. In this re-reading of our past, MK's armed struggle is reduced to a "failure". Mass struggles are portrayed as blind and uncontrolled anarchy. We are told that the leading slogan of the 1980s was "no education before liberation", which is both an untruth and an insult. It insults the constructive, bitter struggles fought for the transformation (not suspension) of education in schools, colleges and universities; it insults the education that happened in MK camps, in apartheid prisons, and in underground cells.

We are told that our struggle was against "racism", an ideology, (which it was, partly), but this conveniently forgets the capitalist growth path and system that underpinned it. Many perpetrators have been exposed, but beneficiaries of the apartheid years still strut about board-rooms and parliament, as if their inordinate present-day wealth and power had no linkage whatsoever to the past. We are told that the "whole world" isolated the apartheid regime, forgetting the active support afforded to the regime, until very, very late in the day, by all of the leading imperialist powers. Even the change in the attitude of the leading imperialist countries was as a result of mass mobilisation, public pressure and lobbying by progressive in those countries.

Those who distort our past, hope to disarm and demobilise us in the present. They want us to forget the reality of imperialism, the persisting legacy of capitalism, the complicity between today's "modern" economy and the ongoing crisis of underdevelopment for the great majority. They want us to forget collective struggle. Cde Chris Hani's life and death, his beliefs and his deeds are a massive antidote to all of these attempts to rub out the memory of the real struggle that was actually fought and eventually won. To go forward, we need to remember and honour this legacy.

Tembisile Martin Hani was born into abject poverty in Sabalele village, in the Cofimvaba district. His father, Gilbert, was a migrant labourer and his mother, Mary, like so many other rural African women, carried the burden of scratching some kind of day-to-day survival out of a devastated and overcrowded landscape. Infant mortality was the norm, and in the Hani family, the first three children did not survive infancy. The three last-born did survive, and included Tembisile and his younger brother Christopher (whose name he later adopted as his MK nom-de-guerre).

The young "Chris" Hani's intellectual sharpness could not escape the attention and admiration of the mission school teachers. He won bursaries to further his schooling and incredibly matriculated at the age of 16. He graduated in law from Fort Hare, aged nineteen, and moved to Cape Town to work as an articled clerk, but he soon joined MK, and was amongst the earliest wave of young militants. Sent out of the country for training, he spoke up against what he considered to be timid, ineffective leadership in the exile MK camps, and he was detained by his own organisation for a period. He was commissar of a joint MK/Zipra group in the 1967 Wankie campaign, an incursion into northern Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). The group was detected by the Rhodesian security forces some seventeen days after crossing over the Zambezi, but they fought bravely in a series of protracted skirmishes, inflicting casualties on the Rhodesians, despite their superior fire-power. After nearly two months of skirmishing, Hani successfully led the survivors of his group into Botswana. In the 1970s and 80s, Hani was infiltrated many times in and out of South Africa. He soon became a key target of the apartheid security forces. He survived several assassination attempts.

By the time of the unbanning of the ANC and SACP in 1990, Chris Hani had become a legend in villages, townships, factories, schools and universities throughout our country. Opinion polls conducted in the early 1990s showed that he was easily the second most popular politician (after cde Mandela, of course) in our country.

By this time he had risen to the number two position in MK, chief of staff. Much to the surprise of those who did not know him well, in December 1991 he left this position, and accepted election as the SACP's full-time general secretary. Several newspaper columnists considered this to be a "surprising career move". But Chris was never a careerist. His first love was the Communist Party, and he wisely understood that building a mass-based, working class party and nurturing thousands of young communist cadres was a critical task, not least for the sake of the longer-term survival of the ANC itself.

Cde Chris had many positive personality traits. He was brave, unflinchingly leading comrades while under enemy fire, or speaking up, without fear, against errors and anomalies within his own organisation. He was always intellectually alert, and loved literature, quoting long passages from Shakespeare by heart. He was a tireless organiser. In the last two years of his life, he moved, week in and week out, from one obscure rural village to another, organising, listening, recruiting. While the speeches made at the CODESA talks (and some of them were very long-winded and boring) are all to be found in the contemporary press reports and archival records, the dozens of speeches Chris was making almost every day in those last years of his life went largely unreported. But in villages all over South Africa, people still remember them.

Of all his qualities, perhaps the one that is most remembered was his empathy. Cde Chris was gifted with a very natural, a completely genuine passion for understanding and identifying with other people. He listened with a compelling eagerness to other people's concerns and aspirations. There was nothing fake about this. Born into the ranks of the poorest of the poor, he never forgot his origins. One of his biographers, a comrade who spent time with him in MK camps in Angola, says of him that Chris was a military leader when comrades needed a military leader, a father when a father was needed, and (an entirely appropriate non-sexist observation) "a mother when a mother was needed". Indeed, many women comrades remember his natural, and unassuming non-sexism.

In the past week, in the run-up to 10th anniversary commemoration of cde Chris's death, the SACP has been asked by some journalists where would Chris be today if he were alive. "Would he be a senior member of cabinet?", one journalist has asked, remembering Hani's own insistence in the early 1990s, that he had no intention whatsoever of becoming a minister. "Would he be labelled an ultra-leftist?", asked another. Maybe, maybe not.

These questions are entirely hypothetical and it would be idle speculation to try to answer them. However, two things ARE certain:

One: If he were alive today, in or out of cabinet, Chris Hani, the communist, would be a loyal, active and campaigning supporter of the ANC government, a government of the people for which he fought and died.

Two: If he were alive today, in or out of cabinet, Chris Hani, the communist, would speak up, without fear of being labelled, against weaknesses, mistakes and illusions within government, within the ANC, and within the SACP itself.

Let us cherish his memory, let us take forward his communist struggle!

My Life - An autobiography written in 1991  

Chris Hani, born on 28 June 1942, in Cofimvaba, Transkei. General-Secretary of the SACP since December 1991 and ANC NEC member since 1974. Matriculated at Lovedale, 1958; Universities Rhodes and Fort Hare - 1959/61, BA Latin and English. Joined ANC Youth League 1957. Active in Eastern and Western Cape ANC before leaving SA in 1962. Commissar in the Luthuli Detachment joint ANC/ZAPU military campaign 1967, escaped to Botswana, returned from Botswana to Zambia 1968, infiltrated SA in 1973 and then based in Lesotho. Left Maseru for Lusaka in 1982 after several unsuccessful assassination attempts. Commissar and Deputy Commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, armed wing of ANC. Chief of Staff, MK 1987.

The following brief autobiographical account was written by comrade Chris Hani in February 1991:

I was born in a small rural town in the Transkei called Cofimvaba. This town is almost 200 kilometres from East London. I am the fifth child in a family of six. Only three of us are still surviving, the other three died in their infancy. My mother is completely illiterate and my father semi-literate. My father was a migrant worker in the mines in the Transvaal, but he subsequently became an unskilled worker in the building industry.

Life was quite harsh for us and we went through some hard times as our mother had to supplement the family budget through subsistence farming; had to bring us up with very little assistance from my father who was always away working for the white capitalists.

I had to walk twenty kilometres to school every five days and then walk the same distance to church every Sunday. At the age of eight I was already an altar boy in the Catholic church and was quite devout.

After finishing my primary school education I had a burning desire to become a priest but this was vetoed by my father.

In 1954, while I was doing my secondary education, the apartheid regime introduced Bantu Education which was designed to indoctrinate Black pupils to accept and recognise the supremacy of the white man over the blacks in all spheres. This angered and outraged us and paved the way for my involvement in the struggle.

The arraignment for Treason of the ANC leaders in 1956 convinced me to join the ANC and participate in the struggle for freedom. In 1957 I made up my mind and joined the ANC Youth League. I was fifteen then, and since politics was proscribed at African schools our activities were clandestine. In 1959 I went over to university at Fort Hare where I became openly involved in the struggle, as Fort Hare was a liberal campus. It was here that I got exposed to Marxist ideas and the scope and nature of the racist capitalist system. My conversion to Marxism also deepened my non-racial perspective.

My early Catholicism led to my fascination with Latin studies and English literature. These studies in these two course were gobbled up by me and I became an ardent lover of English, Latin and Greek literature, both modern and classical. My studies of literature further strengthened my hatred of all forms of oppression, persecution and obscurantism. The action of tyrants as portrayed in various literary works also made me hate tyranny and institutionalised oppression.

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. My decision to join the Party was influenced by such greats of our struggle like Govan Mbeki, Braam Fischer, JB Marks, Moses Kotane, Ray Simons, etc.

In 1962, having recognised the intransigence of the racist regime, I joined the fledgling MK. This was the beginning of my long road in the armed struggle in which there have been three abortive assassination attempts against me personally. The armed struggle, which we never regarded as exclusive, as we combined it with other forms of struggle, has brought about the present crisis of apartheid.

In 1967 I fought together with Zipra forces in Zimbabwe as political commissar. In 1974 I went back to South Africa to build the underground and I subsequently left for Lesotho where I operated underground and contributed in the building of the ANC underground inside our country.

The four pillars underpinning our struggle have brought about the present crisis of the apartheid regime. The racist regime has reluctantly recognised the legitimacy of our struggle by agreeing to sit down with us to discuss how to begin the negotiations process.

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.

Chris Hani,

February 1991


Quotes from Chris Hani  

On Peace

"If you want peace then you must struggle for social justice."

On Political Tolerance

"We as the ANC-led liberation alliance have nothing to fear, and everything to gain, from a climate of political tolerance. We do not fear open contest and free debate with other organisations. Open debate can only serve to uncover the bankruptcy of our political opponents"

On socialism

"The crisis of socialism cannot spell the end of history. I'm saying this because we've got to go back to the reasons for the emergence of the theories of scientific socialism… That is still the position in capitalist countries, we have a class which own the means of production, and we have workers who only sell their labour power. So long as that contradiction of social production and private appropriation remains, there'll always be a case for socialism…Socialism is not about big concepts and heavy theory. Socialism is about decent shelter for those who are homeless. It is about water for those who have no safe drinking water. It is about health care, it is about a life of dignity for the old. It is about overcoming the huge divide between urban and rural areas. It is about a decent education for all our people. Socialism is about rolling back the tyranny of the market. As long as the economy is dominated by an unelected, privileged few, the case for socialism will exist."

On why he did not want to go into a future government

"The perks of a new government are not really appealing to me. Everybody, of course, would like to have a good job, a good salary, and that sort of thing. But for me, that is not the be-all of a struggle. What is important is the continuation of the struggle - and we must accept that the struggle is always continuing - under different conditions whether within parliament, or outside parliament, we shall begin to tackle the real problems of the country. And the real problems of the country are not whether one is in the cabinet, or a key minister, but what we do for social upliftment of the working masses of our country."

On the armed liberation struggle

"When we finally launched an armed struggle, we were not abandoning our quest for peace, we were pursuing that quest in the most effective way left to us by an intransigent and brutal regime."

On the SACP

"We must never forget that the SACP champions the interests of the workers and the poor. Therefore our role has become, in my own view, even more critical… The Party in this country can only be strong if it spends some of its time on building and consolidating itself as an independent entity. We can only become influential if everybody can see we are really independent, we are strong, we've got presence in regions, we've got branches, and we're beginning to tackle some of the issues that face the workers and the poor in this country"

On the ANC and the Alliance

"We have fought together with the ANC and progressive trade union movement. We feel our presence in this broad alliance has actually strengthened the alliance, and brought about a situation where the interests of the workers and the poor are embraced in the basic programme of the ANC and the trade unions. I think that's a major contribution that we have made. And I don't think we should feel shy about saying openly that we actually radicalised the ANC. We have moved the ANC from being a narrow nationalist movement championing the interests of a few, to a movement which has embraced the interests of the workers, the oppressed intelligentsia, the black middle class and I think that is our basic achievement. …. The ANC, despite being a multi-class organisation, must still retain that element which has made it appealing to the majority of our people, namely, the radical element, the element of addressing some, not all, of the aspirations of the working class… This is also the time where we should consolidate this alliance. And this alliance cannot work in the old way, a few communists working with in the ANC and COSATU to try to strengthen these organisations… Let's accept that there's always be a struggle within the ANC (not a hostile struggle) for the predominance of the ideas of the various classes within the ANC; there'll always be an attempt to balance these tendencies within the ANC. The ANC has always go to have these tendencies, otherwise it wouldn't be the ANC."


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