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As the sun hung above the Cacadu River the question echoed in the hamlets and villages: “Is it him? Is this the son of Tshonyane?”
The cars stopped outside a humble homestead.
Transkei Defence Force and Umkhonto weSizwe soldiers jumped out of their cars, making way for the returning son of the village.
His eyes turned briefly towards the rolling hills of Sabalele. “Yhiza, nyana” (come, son) said an elder of his family, who came to greet and take him towards the kraal.
As he greeted his uncle, his eyes caught someone else and he cried: “Dadobawo!” (paternal aunt).
She had lost her sight and only heard his voice.
Slowly he approached her. He took her to his chest, dadobawo, he kept repeating.
“Mntakabhuti” (my brother's child). She felt his face. “What did you eat, all these years? “Ndixelele, ubusenzani, iminyaka le yonke.” (Tell me what did you do, all these years?)
He beckoned one of the soldiers to give him his assault rifle.
Almost playfully, he stood behind his aunt, gave her the AK-47 and balanced it in her hands. He supported her with his own weight. He put her finger on the trigger and pointed the rifle towards the sky.
“This and many other things is what I learnt when I was away, dadobawo,” he said as he helped her pull the trigger.
The single shot went off to the sky. She jumped, shocked and amazed. He gave back the AK-47 to his comrade. They said nothing as people ululated. She touched his face and led him and his family to his mother who waited in the house.
Nomayise Hani, the mother who endured torture and threats while her son and husband were in exile, sat on the chair towards the back of the room when her son entered. She tried to stand as a sign of respect.
He was a hero now, a leader.
He was no longer the son she had sent to fetch water and wash dishes.
He anticipated this and quickly knelt down and held her.
“Mama!” That was all he said as he folded her in his arms. They had come to this place, where words were inadequate.
She pushed him back a little to take another look then said: “Let me meet my daughter-in-law and grandchildren.”
He was led away to the kraal. The bull was already inside. Intlabi (the person who is designated to stab the bull for the clan) waited with his spear. As the sun set in the far away Cacadu horizon, yakhal’inkomo (the bull) bellowed.
Thembisile Martin “Chris’’ Hani was home.
KuSabalele. The place’s name is both an exclamation and a resigned answer to the question “How is life there?” KuSabalele – it is still dry. This is not to be confused with polite conversation about weather. This question is at the heart of how life is on those dry plains and the very dust that shaped Chris Hani.
It is an unforgiving land that reduced sheep to scratching the raw earth in search of food. The roads were just as hard to navigate. This was, after all, one of the communities that lived on the margins of South African society.
This was the village of Nomayise Hani, the woman who waited like a bride for her husband, who was in Lesotho, and her son, whom she prayed she would see one day.
She endured unwelcome visits from security police from time to time and had to sneak away and hide in the rocks like a lost goat.
Hani was always present, even in whispers. “maTshonyane”, Chris Hani’s paternal aunt who was blind by the time he returned home, visited my mother almost every day when I was a child. She lived in my village, Ntshingeni, her home of marriage.
Sometimes, they sat huddled in a corner and mama shooed us away. But still we heard the distressed words of the older woman: “But I want to see him, Rhadebe, just once before I die.”
Sometimes, letters arrived through a circuitous and tortuous route and these had to go to Nomayise – the son telling his mother that he was still alive. To protect her from abuse by the state, these could not go directly to her and when she received them, she listened and knew to destroy them immediately.
What historical narrative could be gleaned from this, one wonders.
KuSabalele is nestled between rolling hills that make the barren land beautiful, despite its grinding poverty and harsh conditions. It also sits in the middle of one of the areas of rich historical heritage. It is in Gcalekaland, the land claimed by Sarhili inamba eyajikelez’i Hoyita – the snake that surrounded Hoyita. It is also between the two major missionary stations – St Marks, which the Anglicans established almost 100 years before the Roman Catholics arrived, and the Catholic Zigudu Mission, in Hoyita.
It has been well documented that Hani went to a Catholic school in Zigudu. He also aspired to join the Catholic Church as a man of the cloth. His father, Gilbert Hani, forbade his following this vocation.
It was in this school, long before he went to Healdtown, that Hani showed his thirst for knowledge.
His former teacher, Mr Nyimbane, described him as a young fellow who did his arithmetic – which he was good at – very fast so that he could quickly bury his nose in the books.
From there, Thembisile moved to Cape Town. He returned to his childhood village intermittently during those years before exile.
Hani seamlessly wove together personal stories of his upbringing into his political understanding. Once, in a tense meeting in Butterworth where strong factions in the ANC were tearing each other apart, Hani and Steve Tshwete were sent to discuss the issue with the ANC leaders there.
“Leadership is not easy. Bullying people is not leadership.”
Then he closed his speech: “If you are not prepared to lead by example, to have your life and principles under a microscope, you have no reason to claim leadership or expect respect.”
How do we celebrate a man who learnt leadership not only from life but also from inhabiting spaces that were not always popular, even among his comrades? What do we say today about the man who introduced a rule in MK which prohibited those who held senior positions from dating cadres in junior positions? How do we take this lesson into our struggle against sexual predation at all levels of our society?
I think, too, of Hani’s words once when he was interviewed and asked if he had any regrets? “Yes,” he said. “I regret that I have not spent enough time with my family. I regret that I have not had time to read more Shakespeare and listen to music that I like. You know, those small pleasures of life.”
That return to his village was also part of the Hani that is not really known. When he returned from exile, he seemed to trace the people he once knew and those he worked with in the political underground.
From Cape Town to Mthatha, Cofimvaba, Limpopo and beyond, Hani sought out people whose sons and daughters he once stood side by side with in the trenches. He also looked out for the men and women he connected with in the underground movement.
It was his way of connecting and being held accountable to those families and the comrades he once worked with. But he also remembered his home and every month sent back a significant part of his meagre R2 000 salary as an NEC member to his mother.
Chris Hani had many features, and in remembering him we need to try to recapture not only the heroic soldier that he was but also the complex human being who cared about a range of people not only for political reasons but from a deep emotional connection.
- Gasa is a researcher and analyst on gender, politics and cultural issues. She is a senior research associate with the Centre for Law & Society (UCT).