South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Tembisile Chris Hani

(June 28, 1942 - April 10, 1993)

Freedom fighter and political activist Tembisile Chris Hani was born in the rural village of Sabalele, in the Cofimvaba region of the former Transkei. He was the fifth of the six children of Gilbert and Mary Hani. Three of the children died in childhood. The name Chris was adopted by him as a nom de guerre, and was in fact the real name of his brother.

Hani was introduced to the politics of inequality early in life, when his father had to leave their rural home in search of work in the urban areas of South Africa. This had a profound influence on the young Chris, who became aware of his mother's struggle to keep the family alive by herself. Like other young men of his age, Chris tended the livestock until he reached school-going age and was enrolled at a primary school.

Coming from an ardent Roman Catholic family, Hani was enrolled at a Catholic school and soon developed a love for Latin and the classics in general. However, his early desire to enter the priesthood was soon dampened by his father who suggested that his son could have a much more socially productive role in a secular profession. He later enrolled at the Matanzima Secondary School at Cala, in the Transkei, but subsequently entered the Lovadale Institute in the Eastern Cape, from where he matriculated in 1958. He studied at the University of Fort Hare and later at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, where he obtained a BA degree in Latin and English. He attempted legal articles between 1962 and 1963, but abandoned this career in favour of the politics of liberation.

Hani's political involvement began in 1957 when he became a member of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). His political career spanned a period of 30 years, culminating in his tragic death by an assassin's bullet in 1993. Three people significantly influenced Hani in his youth. They were his father, his uncle, Milton Hani, and the veteran activist Govan Mbeki, father of President Thabo Mbeki. Govan Mbeki taught the young Hani the finer aspects of Marxism-Leninism. Soon afterwards, while at university, Hani took part in protests against black education, or Bantu education as it was known. The Freedom Charter played an important role in honing Hani's political philosophy. The Freedom Charter's ideology was based on democratic, egalitarian principles, which coincided with Hani's personal socialist outlook.

While in Cape Town, Hani came into contact with the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). This increased his awareness of the workers' struggle. His frustration with the apartheid system led him to join Umkontho We Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. The ANC was banned in 1960 and in 1962 Hani became a member of the Committee of Seven, which was in effect the leadership structure of Umkontho in the Western Cape. His encounters with the law began with his arrest at a police roadblock in 1962. He was found to be in possession of pamphlets containing objections to the government's notorious policy of detention without trila. He was subsequently charged under the Suppression of Communism Act and held in jail. He was granted bail of R500.00, and during his period entered Botswana to attend the 1962 ANC Conference in Lobatsi. On his return to South Africa, he was arrested at the border. He was tried and given an 18-month jail sentence. While out on bail pending an appeal, Hani went underground on the advice of the ANC hierarchy.

He left South Africa for Zambia to receive military training, and became Commissar of the famous Luthuli Regiment of Umkontho in 1967. In the same year he fought in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) with cadres of the Zimbabwe Arfican People's Union (ZAPU). From the Rhodesian front, Hani moved to Botswana, where he was arrested on charges of possessing arms. He was given a six-year sentence, but served only two years before returning to Zambia. After he was released from prison in Botswana, he was very critical of the failure of leadership to rescue him and his comrades from imprisonment by an allegedly friendly country. He demanded a conference of all ANC members in exile. Eventually the historic Morogoro Conference was called in 1969, which took two decisions - firstly to allow white and other 'non-Africans' as members of the ANC, and to ensure that political policy should guide military action, and not vice versa. The Revolutionary Council, which included whites and coloureds, was accordingly set up. Hani re-entered South Africa secretly in 1973 to establish an underground infrastructure for the ANC in the Western Cape. He moved to Zambia, where he was appointed Deputy Commander of Umkontho. In 1983 he fought against Jonas Savimbi's UNITA movement and helped to oust UNITA from the Angolan province of Malanje. By 1987 Hani had become Chief of Staff of Umkontho, which was intensifying its struggle against the Pretoria government. During his active military period, he set up a military training base at Kongwa, a harsh dry region in Central Tanzania.

During the eighties, when many cadres in the military camps became restless and there was increasing evidence of infiltration by the enemy, Hani was an important disciplinarian. Some who were found guilty of treason were executed. Although Hani remained an 'insurrectionist' (i.e. doubtful about the value of negotiations and compromises) for some time after his return to South Africa, he was persuaded of the wisdom of Mandela's approach and made several public statements about the need for peace and reconciliation some months prior to his death.

On his return to South Africa in 1990, Hani began to play an active and important role in political developments leading to a democratic social order. Upon Joe Slovo's retirement on grounds of ill health, he became a member of the Politburo of the South African Communist party (SACP). Chris Hani's popularity with the masses, especially the youth, was legendary. He polled the most votes, after Nelson Mandela, in an opinion poll in November 1992, and became Secretary-General of the small but powerful SACP in 1991.

On the morning of Saturday 10 April 1993 Hani was gunned down as he stepped out of his car in the driveway of his modest Dawn Park, Boksburg home. With him was his daughter, Nomakhwezi, then 15 years old. His wife, Limpho, and two other daughters, Neo (then 20 years old) and Lindiwe (then 12 years old) were away at the time. The assassin was Janusz 'Koba' Walus who, together with former Conservative Party MP Clive Derby-Lewis, was jailed for the killing. More than 150 000 people attended Hani's funeral on 19 April 1993, before the first democratic elections for which he had fought so hard. He was buried in the Els Park Cemetary, Boksburg.


This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH