As the ANC drifts further away from its promise of freedom, many are asking what Chris Hani would do, writes Janet Smith.
Johannesburg - Chris Hani had been in jail for months in Gaborone when he finally got to live as part of the family again. It was Lusaka intellectual and ANC sympathiser Livingstone Mqotsi who gave the young freedom fighter sanctuary after he was released.
Hani had been staying in Luthuli Camp, 130km outside the Zambian capital, when the movement’s leader, Oliver Tambo, approached his old friend and confidant to offer Hani a safe space for reintegration. Mqotsi’s wife, Nzimazana, and his daughters, Yvonne and Laurantia, welcomed him as a son and brother.
But that safe space soon became a place of torment for Hani, who had been jailed after being arrested on crossing into Francistown following the doomed Wankie Campaign.
That 1967 foray had taken him and other Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres into the southern African game reserve on a thwarted, bloody mission to return to South Africa out of military exile. Man-to-man combat, desperate gunfire battles, dead comrades and a ruthless fightback from the Rhodesians and the apartheid security forces had left MK and the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army – which had joined them in solidarity – with no choice but to retreat.
And then came the ultimate insult. Botswana, which was under pressure from Pretoria, sent a paramilitary force to prevent Hani and his men from peacefully entering its territory. Instead of being supported, as they would have expected by virtue of Gaborone's membership of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), they were arrested.
This, while the OAU was an avowed champion of the liberation of South Africa.
What unfolded next is an important story to remember this week, as we mark the 21st anniversary of Hani’s assassination at the hands of rightwingers Janusz Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis.
If you visit The Star’s Ken Oosterbroek Legacy exhibition at the Origins Museum, you’ll see photographer Debbie Yazbek’s powerful photograph of Hani lying in his own blood in what was once his quiet suburban driveway.
Few South Africans sensitive to our lives at the time, cannot recapture that image immediately in their imaginations – such was its unexpected horror.
Hani’s stay in Lusaka in the late 1960s as a young soldier of the movement is an important story because it reveals aspects of the life of the ANC which now carry a particularly robust meaning. In its 20th year of power, the party’s history is sometimes shrouded. But it can never be lost – and Hani was central to it.
When South Africans ask what he would have said, or done, they’re pointing to Hani’s reputation as a moral force. He didn’t earn that lightly.
Accounts tell us he was, at first, living in relative seclusion with the Mqotsis, reading some of his university favourites like Shelley and Keats, developing a taste for Stravinsky and Beethoven, and debating with Livingstone. But, of course, it wouldn’t have been possible for Hani to simply fade out, or to have been isolated. Certainly he was working on healing the injuries of war and prison, but there was also disappointment and frustration, and that was creating a critical change inside him.
Although communists Jack and Ray Simons had thrown a party for him on his arrival in Lusaka, and activist Professor Ben Magubane had hosted one, too, the leadership of the ANC was curiously silent. There was no official reception. It was partly that silence which began to eat at Hani, who slowly came to an understanding of why that unfolded and, to some extent, what was really fermenting in the movement which had allowed it to happen.
Anyone keeping an eye on the Mqotsi house in Woodlands would have seen how certain people came to visit Hani there. Always the same people, for the same reason. So when one of them woke Livingstone Mqotsi late one night, with the grinding sound of the gears of an engine outside in the street, he was not that surprised.
Hani and his comrades had been discussing the betrayal of the revolution for some time, from the confines of the Woodlands house. And the time had gradually come for them to take action.
They would develop a memorandum in that year, 1969, which contained explosive allegations about the ANC, in an environment where risks were surprisingly high. Perhaps it’s not easy to accept it now, but some dissidents inside the movement had disappeared. An atmosphere of fear was developing in its ranks which could no longer be ignored.
The document included names.
Some were scandalous. For instance, it was claimed that one Thabo More – thought to be Joe Modise, a founder of MK who later became the controversial defence minister in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet – was more interested in commercial enterprises, like a furniture factory in Lusaka and others in Livingstone, Zambia, which had once been fronts for ANC underground activities.
Now the factories were making money for the movement and Modise was apparently drawing a salary and driving a “militarily irrelevant” car. A relative of his was also exposed, with two other members of the organisation who handled sensitive information. Meanwhile, the ANC’s head of security, Duma Nokwe, was described as indifferent to the needs of battle-weary comrades.
The document laid bare the stories that outspoken combatants were punished in the ANC’s military camps. There were secret trials, and there was talk of executions. More generally, there was the view that sycophants prevailed.
Hani and his comrades also singled out Thabo Mbeki, who was his ideological opposite. Particular ire was directed at those who had been studying in Europe during exile, while soldiers like him had gone to war. The document warned against “the fossilisation” of the leadership, which would hinder the progressive development of the revolution. It warned against nepotism. It warned against indifference to the heroes.
It was angry.
It was pointed.
“The ANC in exile is in a deep state of crisis as a result of which a rot has set in,” it began.
“We, as genuine revolutionaries, are moved by the frightening depths reached by the rot in the ANC.”
And there was more.
The men had the memorandum delivered to the ANC’s leadership, and the late-night visit came shortly after that – as a warning to Hani. But that didn’t stop it from gaining momentum.
Copies were made in whatever form. Typed, stencilled, duplicated. Word of mouth delivered it everywhere, and soon, ordinary members of the ANC started to express their own questions and articulate their deep concerns.
This was more than unsettling for the leadership. This was its first major internal challenge, and it was threatened.
And so, a dismissive opinion began to be circulated: that the memorandum had been drawn up by tribalists from Transkei, which was indeed Hani’s home. But even that did not take hold. The whispering was turning into open speech, and so Hani and others were summoned first to meet six members of the ANC National Executive Committee and select members of MK, and then to meet the executive.
It’s still said that dire punishment, even death, was threatened there. Darker are the rumours that dungeons were mooted. What seems to be clear is that Tambo himself then directly intervened to bring a halt to this terrible divide, and convened another meeting.
But the decision was ultimately to hold a military tribunal, with National Executive Committee members Mzwai Piliso, Jonas Matlou and former PAC member Sipho Mthembu, in the chairs. Accounts are that execution was recommended, but Piliso’s intervention saved Hani and the others from what might have been a firing squad.
Others say it was Ray Simons who stood up for them, and Mqotsi also denied their accusers his silence.
In the end, Hani’s many supporters in the movement seemed to have saved his life, and the National Executive Committee – led by its most vocal members like Joe Slovo and Yusuf Dadoo – eventually overruled the tribunal. The conspirators were suspended.
What remains, though, is the disturbing and dangerous tendency in the ANC’s leadership of the time to refuse to accept criticism. In fact, to want to combat it violently.
But a renewed vigour was also evident when it met in Morogoro, Tanzania, that year. Its outcome was more vociferously linked to the kind of views disseminated in the memorandum, and a comprehensive Strategy and Tactics document was issued which restated the commitment to the freedom of all South Africans.
Hani spoke about it later to Communist Party activist and writer Wolfie Kodesh, saying: “Our criticism created a crisis within the movement which jolted them, and again prompted a clear definition of the objectives of the ANC.
“The ANC began to say the working class is the basis of our struggle, and we would want to believe that our criticism and anger did contribute.”
This week, as South Africans reconsidered the life of Hani and what he might have gone on to achieve, since he never saw freedom, it’s worth contemplating his early attempts to maintain the moral core of the movement.
He never wavered from that, as the ANC current leadership knows all too well.