On 10 April 1993, as he returned to his suburban Johannesburg home, South African freedom fighter Chris Hani was assassinated by an ultra-right extremist. At the time, the negotiations to finalize the end of apartheid were nearing the finish line that would become the first South African democratic election in 1994. Hani was a key leader in the African National Congress-South African Communist Party- Congress of South African Trade Unions trialliance. In fact, during the exile struggle years with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki imprisoned, Hani, along with Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo, was arguably one of the three key leaders in the struggle against apartheid. Last week, Jay Naidoo, a struggle labor leader himself, connected Chris Hani to the present. His essay is titled:
A culture of service and tolerance: Lessons from Chris Hani – Jay Naidoo
Twenty years on and it is sometimes convenient, or simply too easy, to forget the abyss of civil war from which our leaders drew us back and to speculate on what might have been had the ANC taken a harder line in the negotiation process that led to South Africa’s first democratic elections of 1994. We sometimes need reminding that the liberation movement achieved a “political miracle”. And we need to remind ourselves of the values held dear by Chris Hani, who represented the best of our patriots in wanting a meaningful democratic outcome for our people.
Twenty years have passed. What have we learnt from the ultimate sacrifice that Chris Hani made on that fateful day 20 years ago? I am reminded of a profound quote from an NGO I support, which says, “In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it."
The turbulent eighties, the era of our people’s defiance, saw the rise of the mass democratic movement led by the African National Congress. The Apartheid regime was in a structural crisis faced with a deepening economic catastrophe and a global illegitimacy, which forced a political stalemate in our country. Something had to give. The alternative was a racial civil war.
These were momentous times. It needed leaders of courage on both sides to rise above the conflict and see a path to a political settlement. But the release of Mandela and all political prisoners, the unbanning of the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and other banned organisations and the return of political exiles also saw a ferocious and brutal response by those right-wing forces opposed to democracy. Thousands of innocent black civilians paid the ultimate price as violence swept townships and people were murdered in their homes and slaughtered in the streets.
These were brutal times and fear stalked the land. It is convenient for some today to believe that these were not dangerous times and that we gave up too much in the negotiations process. In hindsight we did achieve a “political miracle”.
I reflect on some of the things that Chris Hani talked about and shared with me. He had decided that he would not go into Parliament although there was tremendous pressure on him. He was a communist and a democrat. He felt that power should also be built outside of government because of the political lessons he had learnt from other transitions.
Eight days before Comrade Chris was assassinated in April 1993, he was interviewed by social historian Luli Callinicos. In this interview, on the eve of the 1994 democratic election, he said that South Africa faced a “new enemy” and a “new struggle”. That enemy, he said, was socio-economic; it was about the struggle for jobs, houses, schools, so that we can build a society that cares.
What Comrade Chris was calling for was a culture of service. A culture where nurses are guided by an ethic of care, teachers by an ethic of learning, police by an ethic of community safety, and local government by an ethic of service delivery. The new enemy, he said, was corruption and “we in the party have been discussing how we should cut down on salaries of ministers, of parliamentarians, so that if you are in Parliament in Cape Town, you actually rent a flat like everybody”.
Importantly, he said in the interview that we must allow “the formation of many democratic formations in this country, organs of civil society, like the civics, independent trade unions, students’ organisations, teachers’ organisations, organisations of housewives , women, gays… so that we are kept reminded of the needs of the people on the ground”.
He anticipated the major challenges we would experiences as a democracy when he said, “I think, finally, the ANC will have to fight a new enemy. That enemy would be another struggle to make freedom and democracy worthwhile to ordinary South Africans. Our biggest enemy would be what we do in the field of socio-economic restructuring; creation of jobs; building of houses, schools, medical facilities, overhauling our education, eliminating illiteracy, building a society which cares, and fighting corruption when power and government position enriches individuals. We must build a different culture in this country, different from Africa, different from the Nationalist Party. And that culture should be one of service to people.”
This is advice that we must all take to heart. The priority in education is the interests of the child, not the teachers, parents or government. In health it is the interests of the patient and, most importantly for our political and economic elites, it is the interests of the citizen. When all of us take that into our hearts and our actions then we will have truly understood the wisdom of Chris Hani.
That was Jay Naidoo’s commemoration of Chris Hani. It is important to emphasize Hani’s role in the struggle because his actions speak to the present. Chris Hani not only spoke back to and fought the power of apartheid, but he spoke back to struggle leadership supporting his comrades – Chris Hani believed in democracy from the ground.
Speaking at Hani's funeral Joe Slovo said: “Chris Hani had a dream of democracy. They killed the man, but they can never kill the dream. And the dream Chris Hani had is about to become a reality.” Jay Naidoo wants to see that dream come to further fruition – in South Africa and throughout the world.
For more on Chris Hani see Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp’s book, Hani: A Life too Short.