After 30 years, Chris Hani’s murder still riles South Africa

The SACP has called for a fresh inquest into Chris Hani's murder. 

It was a murder that shaped modern South Africa. 

On 10 April 1993, Chris Hani, a hugely popular anti-apartheid activist, was gunned down by a white supremacist – a killing that almost plunged the country into a race war and resounds to this day. 

Chris Hani’s murder

As anger within South Africa’s black majority reached boiling point, Nelson Mandela appealed for calm on national television.

But the crisis also accelerated negotiations to end white rule, forcing the government to make concessions. A year later, South Africa held its first free, democratic, multi-racial elections.

“When (Hani) died, he sparked something in South Africa,” political commentator Justice Malala, who has penned a book on the murder, told AFP.

Three decades on, a mix of nostalgia, grief and rancour permeate preparations to commemorate the slain hero, as the nation contends with stark inequalities and corruption scandals.

“Chris Hani is almost the antidote of what South Africa has become,” Malala said. 

“He represents in the South African mind the idea of freedom and freedom fighters being, perhaps naively, people of high principle of integrity, of service.” 

Sophocles, communism and religion

The leader of the South African Communist Party (SACP) at the time of his death, Hani was born in 1942 to a poor family in the southern Eastern Cape province. 

He attended a Catholic school and toyed with the idea of becoming a priest, according to Malala.

He went on to study Latin and classical literature at university, and quickly got involved in the liberation movement. 

Hani was of one the first to join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) and he soon gained a reputation for challenging the ANC leadership.  

“He always raised the issues of the ordinary soldiers,” Solly Mapaila, the current head of the SACP told AFP. 

After organising and taking part in guerrilla operations abroad, he became MK’s chief of staff and officially returned to South Africa after the ANC and the SACP were unbanned in 1990. 

A charming man who could talk Sophocles with political opponents and religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Hani “very quickly established himself as someone who could articulate the frustrations of young and poor people,” said Malala. 

“He was the most popular leader in the country after Mandela”.

Aged 50, he was shot dead in the driveway of his home in eastern Johannesburg, by far-right Polish immigrant Janusz Walus.

ALSO READ: ‘Karma will deal with them all’ – Hani’s widow furious with judges after Waluś given parole

Walus was released on parole in December last year in a decision described as “diabolical” by Hani’s widow, Limpho.

Unanswered questions

Walus and his accomplice, Clive Derby-Lewis, had hoped to spark a racial conflict but were quickly arrested.

Yet questions about the killing remain, and conspiracy theories, involving anyone from the secret services to the ANC, abound.

ALSO READ: Janusz Walus to serve his parole in South Africa, not Poland – Motsoaledi

This week, the SACP called for a fresh inquest into the murder. 

“There were many… factors that were not properly investigated,” Mapaila said. “We need to know the truth.”

Mapaila is among some who believe Hani embodied a vision of radical transformation, including a redistribution of land and resources, that has faded from view.

Decades after the end of white rule, South Africa remains “a dual economy with one of the highest and most persistent inequality rates in the world,” according to the World Bank. 

The government’s “addiction” to “liberal economic reforms” was “dishonouring” Hani’s memory, said Mapaila, who has threatened to break up the SACP’s decades-long alliance with the ANC if the latter does not agree to a more leftist economic agenda ahead of elections next year.

ALSO READ: Hani memorial: Damage due to neglect, not political division

Meanwhile, South Africans have grown ever more despondent at the state of a country battered by a stagnant economy, mounting crime, dizzying unemployment rates and rolling blackouts. 

Many blame, at least in part, graft and corruption, yearning for a time when leaders like Hani seemed selfless and uninterested in clout and privilege. 

Hani himself was “very suspicious of his own comrades and what they might do when they got to power,” said Malala.

He was not afforded the opportunity to put his teachings to the test.

A commemorative event is to take place on Monday morning near Boksburg, where Hani’s tomb and memorial site are located.

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