I INTERVIEWED Chris Hani at the end of 1991 for a BBC documentary about the role of the South African security forces in orchestrating the violence in the black townships, a subject on which he was lucid, convincing and passionate. After the camera had stopped rolling we chatted a while and I asked him, expecting a predictable response, whether he felt the officers responsible should be made to pay for their crimes.
His reply surprised me. Retribution would not heal the country's wounds. The price of vengeance, however morally justified, would be prolonged instability. For democracy to take hold, an African National Congress government would have to engage in a policy of forgiveness. 'There will be no Nurembergs in South Africa,' he said.
It was at this moment that I realised, and time has only reinforced the perception, just how miraculously fortunate white South Africans have been. Not only have they enjoyed, as a direct consequence of an ideology of racial discrimination, a quality of life unmatched in the world, the political organisation which has led the struggle for social justice has been driven not by revenge but by a desire for peaceful cohabitation. When the logic would have been for the ANC, and the vast majority of blacks who support them, to burn with racial hatred, to string up every white person, not just police and army officers, from the nearest tree, instead the ANC's bedrock objective has been to strive, with absurd generosity, for 'a non-racial society'.
Of all ANC leaders, Chris Hani was the one identified by a gullible white public, unable to distinguish between state propaganda and fact, as the most satanic. He was a Communist, he was - until recently - chief of staff of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), he was a fiery speaker idolised by those little monsters, the black township youth.
In a recent interview Hani said: 'The message is being sent to the white population that Chris Hani is the devil himself. The police see me as the brains and key strategist. I have given up trying to prove that I'm campaigning for peace.'
Try he did, however. Only last week he issued a number of statements vigorously denouncing fringe militants who said 'the armed struggle' continued and that white children - two of whom died in a recent attack on a car - would be as much their targets as anybody else. He also criticised elements within the ANC who were abusing their positions for violent and criminal purposes.
In fact Hani was better placed than anyone in the ANC to ease the ever- present white terror that one night hordes of blacks will descend on their suburbs, raping, pillaging and murdering. He is irreplaceable because such was his unique status among the black youth, such was the image he had acquired as the common man's symbol of resistance, that no one in the ANC was in a better position plausibly to sell the radical doubters the message of peace and tolerance.
It was not only his track record as an Umkhonto hero that won him loyalty and affection, his humble origins too established a special bond of solidarity with ordinary blacks.
Born in the small rural town of Cofimvaba in the Transkei, he was the fifth child in a family of six, three of whom died in infancy. His mother was illiterate. Her special skill, subsistence farming. His ever-absent father, who could barely read, worked in the mines in the Transvaal. But Hani did go to school and, rather bafflingly for his parents no doubt, acquired a love for the Classics and English literature. A devout Catholic, he was an altar boy at the age of eight and at 12 resolved to enter the priesthood, which he said he would have done had his father not stood in the way.
Instead, in a not uncommon leap, he became a Communist and a freedom fighter. In 1957 he joined the ANC Youth League, two years later went to Fort Hare University to study English and Latin and in 1962 he joined Umkhonto we Sizwe. The following year he was arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. But he jumped bail and fled the country to undertake military training. He took part in battles alongside the black liberation forces in Rhodesia in 1967 and seven years later, now a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee, he was instructed to run Umkhonto operations in the Cape from Lesotho.
After surviving a number of assassination attempts he returned to ANC headquarters in Zambia in 1982 and in 1984 he was appointed political commissar and deputy commander of Umkhonto.
In 1987 he became Umkhonto's chief of staff and in December 1991, 18 months after his legal return to South Africa, he relinquished that position after he was unanimously elected general secretary of the Communist Party.
In recent years, in keeping with the times both in South Africa and abroad, his Communism mellowed into something rather closer to social democracy and, as he declared five days ago, 'I am now a combatant for peace.' Final victory was not going to be won on the field of battle but in elections, he realised, and for elections to succeed stability was essential.
On the news of Hani's assassination in the driveway of his home in Boksburg, near Johannesburg, President FW de Klerk and the government's chief negotiator, the cabinet minister Roelf Meyer, both made statements on Saturday afternoon in which they recognised the sincerity of his conversion. Machiavellian as Communists are supposed to be, it was the impression of all who met Hani that he was a supremely honest man. I ran into him numerous times and I found him to be unfailingly forthright, to the point of severity, in his politics but as an individual relentlessly good-humoured and affectionate.
The pity of it is that if the state machinery had been less dishonest, had not striven so hard to project him as a snarling public enemy number one, the climate would not have existed for madmen to hatch murderous plots.