This week, Judge Nicolene Janse van Nieuwenhuizen of the High Court in Pretoria, ordered the release of Janusz Walus, the Polish immigrant who assassinated SACP and ANC leader Chris Hani in 1993. Walusz, who is now 63, will be freed within the next 12 days after serving 22 years in prison. An entire generation has passed since the killer - and his co-conspirator Clive Derby-Lewis - planned to destabilise South Africa and draw it into civil war through the murder of Hani. But the pain of losing a great leader is still intimate to our experience as a nation, and still agonising to his family. Not only did his widow, Limpho, lose her husband, but also her daughter Nomakhwezi, who witnessed Walus’s savage slaying of her father. In this excerpt from the biography Hani: A Life Too Short by journalists Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp, we revisit the murder that changed the course of a nation.
High Court Judge Nicolene Janse van Nieuwenhuizen this week ordered the release of Janusz Walus, the Polish immigrant who assassinated SACP and ANC leader Chris Hani in 1993. Walus, now 63, is expected to be freed imminently, having served 22 years in jail. A generation has passed since the killer and his co-conspirator Clive Derby-Lewis tried to destabilise South Africa with the murder. The pain of losing a great leader is still with us and his family. In this excerpt from the biography Hani: A Life Too Short by Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp, we revisit the tragedy.
On the morning of April 10, Janusz Walus set out from leafy Muckleneuk in the shadow of the Union Buildings. The Shokotan karate enthusiast claimed he was heading for the Stan Schmidt Centre in the vicinity of Bramley, Joburg, but found it closed as it was Easter Saturday. So he drove on to the Gun Exchange in Corlett Drive nearby, emerging with 25 rounds of 9mm subsonic ammunition.
He said that the morning’s journey had been planned to take a final look around the Hani home, which was situated on a gentle curve where few other houses were in view of its secluded driveway. But, as he pulled up close to the house he now knew so well, Walus saw that Hani was leaving home. On impulse, Walus said, he followed him.
Whether by coincidence or design, Hani was without his bodyguards. The air was fresh, the morning still. It was a holiday and few people were around.
On his tail, Walus saw that Hani wasn’t going far; mere blocks away to the local strip mall. So when he saw that Hani had stepped into a cafe, probably to buy the newspaper, Walus realised he did not have much time if he was finally going to do it.
“At that moment, I decided it would be the best opportunity to execute my task and that this opportunity would never be repeated,” Walus admitted. “I decided not to do it in the shopping centre because there were a lot of people.”
Walus quickly steered off on a different route back to Hakea Crescent, Dawn Park, so that he would arrive just before Hani returned in his Toyota sedan. Walus got to the house only a couple of minutes before Hani. He quickly pulled on his gloves, and armed himself. He was ready. “I put the pistol in the belt of my trousers behind my back. Seeing Mr Hani move away from the car, I did not want to shoot him in the back. I called to Mr Hani. When he turned, Iâ€¦ fired the first shot into his body. As he turned and fell, I fired a second shot at his head.”
Hani’s daughter Nomakhwezi’s gaze had fallen immediately upon the terrible scene, at the same time as their neighbour Retha Harmse, who was driving past slowly. By the time the two realised what was happening, seconds after Walus took aim, it was already too late. It was over.
Nomakhwezi had longed desperately for this time alone with her father. When he had fetched her in Lesotho on the previous Thursday, leaving her mother and sisters behind, they had planned to spend the weekend together; he would be all hers.
Now she began to scream as Walus walked, with an eerily confident stride, straight back to his car. Harmse drove off as quickly as possible, pulled into her driveway and rushed inside for the phone. Walus got into his car and pulled away, as silently as he had arrived.
Nomakhwezi ran into the road, screaming louder. The neighbours quickly began to make sense of the heartbreaking sound, and, as they started to filter into their gardens and driveways, Hani’s bewildered, terrified daughter headed in the direction of the home of Noxolo Grootboom, a TV journalist, who was in her kitchen. Grootboom flew outside and threw her arms around the child, holding her tightly, trying to calm her down.
The Sunday Star reported Nomakhwezi’s words: “They shot my daddy. I saw it. It was a white manâ€¦ my mommy is not here.”
Since no one heard the shots - Walus having used subsonic ammunition - there was confusion initially. But it didn’t take long for people to realise what had caused Nomakhwezi’s desperate sobbing.
As the neighbours rushed to the house, they saw Hani, lying in a thick pool of his own blood in the driveway. And so the wailing started there in the crowd gathering on the neat paving of the house in the small suburb.
By evening, grief had overcome the nation. Chris Hani was dead. “What child should witness such a barbaric crime?” Nomakhwezi confided in a private piece that was read out at her own funeral by her younger sister, Lindiwe. Nomakhwezi died, apparently from an asthma attack, in 2001. Tokyo Sexwale was one of the first people called to the scene after her death at a friend’s house, just as he had been after her father was murdered.
Sexwale says he found Nomkhwezi with a blanket covering her, resting in exactly the same position that he father had been in after he was killed.
“Her right hand was under her face and her other hand was on her side, as though she was trying to clutch something. I want to be with him just one more time,” wrote Nomkhwezi, who was confronted with her father’s killer again when the murder trial began at the Rand Supreme Court in Joburg, and again at the TRC, when ANC supporters danced around Walus and his co-conspirator Clive Derby-Lewis, taunting and booing, and hissing at them outside the hearing chambers in the Benoni town hall.
Blood spatter on Walus’s clothing and gunpowder on his gloves worked to damn him, but there was plenty more evidence. Walus had been alone in his red Ford when the police boxed him in. He stopped the car and sat behind the wheel, his hands in his lap. On the back seat of the car was a carrybag, perhaps the same one as he had been holding when he’d approached Hani at the Johannesburg Sun a few weeks before.
Inside the bag was a Z88 pistol. Just behind Walus’s seat was a silencer. The police immediately took him into custody, also finding a bag in the car containing self-adhesive plastic letters and numbers that could be superimposed on registration plates.
This was not the purchase of a man who killed on a whim. Walus knew he was going to do it when he did. He knew how. At the death scene, ANC spokeswoman Gill Marcus pleaded with the media to show some dignity as photographers jostled for position around the pool of blood in which Hani lay.
Not long afterwards, ANC president Oliver Tambo - ailing, unable to speak - arrived. There was absolute silence as he stepped out of a limousine, in a bright, silky, red-patterned neckerchief, and strode as boldly as possible down the guard of honour towards the mortuary van to see Hani before his body was taken away.
Tambo’s wife Adelaide, could only take a glance before she burst into tears, and was comforted by Walter Sisulu.
“Hamba kahle Umkhonto, Umkhonto, Umkhonto we Sizwe”
The chant wafted across the horrified gathering.
“We heard it,” Racheal Lerutla, who was living nearby, recalled. “Everybody was running. Everybody was emotional. Everybody was crying. You could see it had struck everybody. Nobody was speaking to anybody. People were in a state of shock.”
* Hani: A Life Too Short (Jonathan Ball) is written by Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp.