Chris Hani died 20 years ago today: why he’s still a hero
Twenty years ago today Chris Hani was murdered while returning to his house in Boksburg outside Johannesburg having bought the paper. He is virtually unknown in this country, and as far as I know throughout the rest of the world. But he is still a hero in South Africa. And he is a hero of mine.
It may seem odd for someone who isn’t South African. It may seem odd to choose Hani, rather than more lauded struggle figures such as Mandela, Biko and Tutu. But Hani’s life and death speak to the wider struggle against poverty, inequality and racism in a way that few others do. A wider struggle of which we should all seek to be a part.
His death lead to the date being set for the first democratic elections in South Africa. But his contribution could have been so much more had he lived. The aim of his killers was to precipitate a race war, a counter-revolutions in which the security forces would take charge and reverse the agreed end of apartheid.
Hani was Secretary General of the South African Communist Party and had been Chief of Staff of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe in exile, where he fought for AIDS treatment for his soldiers. He forged the union of the ANC, SACP and COSATU (the Trade Union Congress) into an alliance against apartheid. From an early childhood in poverty in the Eastern Cape, he studied classics and law. His achievements at the time of his death were remarkable.
From standing up to the corrupt and bullying leadership of the ANC’s armed wing (for which he was imprisoned) to his refusal to consider a cabinet position in the run-up to democracy he always put principle before his personal safety or security. Personal enrichment could not have been further from his interests.
Indeed it was his commitment to living in a mixed race neighbourhood with little personal security that made his murder all too easy. And the fact that he was mowing his own lawn when killed gives an idea of the man’s humility.
But it is what he could have contributed that gives Hani’s death a deep sadness. He would almost certainly have succeeded Nelson Mandela as President. It is hard to imagine him being an AIDS denialist like Thabo Mbeki, the man who did succeed Mandela. It is also hard to believe he would have allowed the huge disparities of wealth that Mbeki championed. He certainly would have prevented the police from shooting striking miners.
Chris Hani represents all that’s good about our struggle. He stood up for the poor and the marginalised throughout his life. He was uninterested in power for its own sake and any wealth his role could bring him. His death both pushed South Africa forward in the short term and held it back in the long term. We should remember him for his achievements and for the way he represents what is best in our movement.
Edited to correct details of Hani’s death.