Death of the soldier obsessed with Hamlet: Last week Chris Hani called for peace. Yesterday he was killed in the street. John Carlin in Johannesburg reports

CHRIS HANI, born in the impoverished Transkei town of Cofimvaba, developed early in his childhood a love for Latin and the classics that evolved in time into a passion for English literature, in particular Shakespeare, whose work he would quote frequently in conversation.

The character of Hamlet obsessed him most, a curious choice for a political figure who radiated a hue of resolution undimmed by the cowardice of conscience. A combatant without parallel in the African National Congress's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), he became MK's political commissar in 1982 and chief of staff four years later.

Ronnie Kasrils, a senior ANC official who was with him in Umkhonto from the start in the early Sixties, observed yesterday that Hani's fascination with Hamlet was at odds with his single- minded public persona and revealed the private dilemma he endured, but hid, over the moral question of whether to fight or not to fight, to kill or not to kill.

'He became - and remained to this day - the personification of Umkhonto,' Mr Kasrils said. 'He stood head and shoulders over every single one of the rest of us. He was so firm, so forthright, so clear-headed. But he was also an extremely gentle and loving man, who inspired devotion among the combatants. That soft streak of humanity he exhibited in private was the clue to his fascination with Hamlet. He understood what an individual goes through who has to make life-and-death decisions. Alone, he agonised, but as a leader he knew could not afford to display indecision.'

Hani was a household name in South Africa well before the ANC was unbanned in 1990 and he was allowed legally to enter the country. Neighbourhoods and schools in black townships were named after him. If Nelson Mandela was the patriarch, the jailed Messiah, Hani was the man with whom activists identified on a more familiar level. He was the brother in arms, an idol among the black youth, the symbol of armed resistance, before they even knew what he looked like.

His charisma survived the legend. A recent poll identified the flesh and blood Hani, after three years of relentless exposure to his followers up and down the country, as the second most popular political figure in the country after Mr Mandela.

The propaganda put out by the South African establishment and disseminated in the right-wing media also remained unchanged, which assisted him in preserving his defiant image, but also conveyed a perception to the white populace woefully at odds with the man.

In September last year he led the march on Bisho, the capital of Brigadier Oupa Gqozo's absurd and discredited Ciskei 'homeland', which led to soldiers opening fire and killing 27 ANC supporters. A month earlier he had been in an identical confrontation with the Ciskei army, which itself came within a hair's breadth of a bloodbath.

A five-hour stand-off with the soldiers was defused, in large measure due to his charm, humour and reasonableness. At the front of the march, ready to take the first volley if it came, he chatted with a black colonel and a sinister Austrian officer, seconded to the Ciskei army, who was evidently in charge. Despite themselves, the tubby colonel and the Austrian, a tall man of Prussian demeanour, were unable to restrain smiles and, in time, were laughing at his jokes. Hani clapped the Austrian on the back and proposed they exchange telephone numbers. 'We should sit down some time, have a drink and discuss serious business - military affairs,' he said.

The following month, the night after the same people had massacred his supporters, he walked all night around the bush near the Ciskei border, where dazed survivors had lit camp fires. A Henry V figure, as Mr Kasrils remarked, he went from group to group, comforting, raising spirits, always ready with a joke.

It was that style which won him the affection and loyalty of the Umkhonto fighters scattered, often frustrated to the point of rebellion, around Africa during the Eighties. His track record, too, inspired trust. In 1962, at the age of 20, he joined Umkhonto, was arrested a year later, jumped bail and fled the country for military training overseas. In the late Sixties he fought alongside the liberation army in what was then Rhodesia and took part in three big battles. In 1974, now on the ANC's National Executive Committee, he moved to Lesotho, where he ran Umkhonto's underground activities in the Cape Province for seven years, surviving an attempt on his life when a bomb was placed under his car.

When he returned legally to South Africa in 1990 he confirmed widespread suspicions by declaring himself to be a member also of the South African Communist Party, and in December 1991 was unanimously elected the party's general secretary.

Although deeply influenced by the Soviet Union in his early years of exile, by the time of his death his political vision had mellowed into something more closely resembling John Smith's than Fidel Castro's. More moderate than many of his followers, he battled - and failed - at the December congress to add the word 'democratic' as a prefix to 'socialism' in the party's manifesto.

In recent months Hani had displayed more courage than any other ANC leader in criticising the violent excesses of youths purporting to act in the ANC's name - in particular those belonging to the township 'self-defence units' that he had helped set up as a response to the murder machine unleashed by the state, as he always saw it, under the guise of Inkatha.

The SDUs themselves rapidly got out of hand, and only last week it was Hani who stood up and made a proposal for these to be converted into a nationwide peace corps modelled on John F Kennedy's voluntary service organisation of the Sixties. The young volunteers, he said, would create the basis for a new pride in black neighbourhoods and also channel the idealism and fire of the young in a socially constructive cause.

Last week, too, he spoke out against attacks on whites by para- military groups acting in the name of the radical Pan Africanist Congress. Sounding almost like a preacher, and leaving no doubt about his commitment to the ANC's policy of negotiation, he said: 'The issue now is not armed struggle but elections. That needs a climate of peace and stability; we cannot afford to have that process delayed and disrupted by violent elements.' And he added: 'Every ANC supporter should be a combatant, but a combatant now for peace.'

When Hani was 12, revelling in the struggle between the patricians and the plebeians of Latin history, he determined to conduct his battle against injustice through the priesthood. It was only the resistance of his father, who moved him from a Catholic to a non-denominational school, that swayed him from this path. Later he embraced a different faith, but the driving force behind his political engagement remained the same, which made it perhaps grimly appropriate that he should have sacrificed his life - a price he declared he was prepared to pay for a free South Africa - at the Easter weekend.

(Photograph omitted)