Death shatters oasis of the new South Africa: Hani died in a suburb where he had helped to bury the past. John Carlin reports

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DAWN PARK is a suburb of Boksburg, a town just east of Johannesburg, whose main claim to fame was an incident three years ago when right-wingers, in a not untypical expression of local white sentiment, assaulted a group of black people having a picnic in a municipal park.

When Chris Hani, the African National Congress leader assassinated on Easter Saturday, chose after nearly 30 years in exile to make his home in Dawn Park, the response was the same among friend and foe alike: this was sheer perversity.

The phrase 'sleepy middle- class suburb' was invented for Dawn Park and its streets of brick bungalows, modest by South African white standards. A visit there on Friday revealed that there had been method in Mr Hani's madness. The search for a white racist proved vain. Most white South Africans would have told you last week that they regretted Mr Hani's death, if only for selfish reasons. But 95 out of 100 would also have said that he was a bad thing, that he was a communist, a terrorist, the red demon that state propaganda had always portrayed him to be.

But in Dawn Park the sadness at Mr Hani's death was genuine, the perception sincere that he had evolved from a man of war, as chief of staff of the ANC's armed wing, into a man of peace.

Take Dries Erasmus, a church- going, stolid Afrikaner who lives three houses down from the Hani family: a man who from duty and conviction has voted all his life for the National Party, the architects of apartheid.

'Chris was my friend. He was a very dear man, a very loved man, particularly in this street,' Mr Erasmus said. 'He was a quiet man. He came home, went to the shops, went jogging - didn't interfere with anyone. But he shone peace. His light was for peace, though he was a military man. But he fought for his people the way the Afrikaners fought against the British. For freedom. Look, I put myself in his place - I would have planted bombs.'

When the Hani family moved in, Mr Erasmus did what he always does when new neighbours arrive. 'I went to see what church they belonged to. And I discovered his wife was a Methodist, so I called the Methodist minister and put them in touch with each other.'

Such was the affection the two men developed for each other that Mr Hani invited Mr Erasmus and his wife to his 50th birthday party last year. On Wednesday night, the couple dropped around to pay their condolences to Mr Hani's widow, Dimpho. ' 'Dimple', I call her - she likes that name,' Mr Erasmus said.

The following night a delegation of 15 of Mr Hani's white neighbours did the same, and delivered flowers and a wreath.

There was a time, not long ago, when Dawn Park was a predominantly right-wing community, when even Mr Erasmus, as a 'Nat', was considered soft on the 'kaffirs'. But over the past three years, with the relaxation of the race laws, more and more blacks have moved in. The whites who have remained have learnt to live with their black neighbours.

A big test of their tolerance and their avowed loss of fear of blacks came last week, when Dawn Park was besieged by dancing, chanting ANC crowds from nearby townships. On Monday, 5,000 overran the streets, in a scene never before seen in a traditionally white suburb.

Chris Ochse, another Afrikaner, was leaning on his gate, smoking a cigarette. Did he have any thoughts of leaving? 'Leave? Agh, no man. I'm not going to leave. The marches this week? They didn't bother anyone. OK, so they broke into a place or two. But nobody was hurt.

'Look, I have a black neighbour. We get on very good. If we see each other, we talk. What you do with your white neighbour. No difference.'

An elderly couple, who would not give their names because they said they feared right-wing reprisals, were in their garden having a cup of tea. 'There's no problem here]' said the husband. 'We hardly have any crime, unlike most places in South Africa. Yes, we did have a burglary here two years ago, but you know what happened? A black man who had just moved in next door saw the two guys who did it, reported it to the police, identified them when they were arrested and we got everything back that was stolen.

'It's so sad politicians play this black and white stuff out of all proportions. Such a shame. Chris Hani - I saw him on TV the other week and he was talking peace, and I told my wife, 'Hey, this guy's got a terrific attitude.' But I had a bad feeling, even then. You know, it always happens. You talk peace and they get you. Look at Kennedy and Martin Luther King.'

The rumour in the South African press last week had been that the whites in Dawn Park were all fleeing and selling up. Some did, indeed, lock up their houses and go to relatives for the week, to escape 'the masses'. Some were, of course, frightened. But according to Clinton, who runs the local estate agency, only three people had put their houses up for sale. 'They were heat of the moment decisions. I wouldn't be surprised if next week, when things calm down, they come off the market.'

Next door to the estate agent is the local supermarket, Lucky Seven Superette. Maria, the owner, was probably the last person to see Chris Hani alive. He popped over to the supermarket to buy the newspaper and, on his return home, was shot dead.

Maria said she took no interest in politics. 'He was my customer and we got on well. It's so sad. We're shocked. It's always been so peaceful here. I would always chat with his wife. Her younger daughter, Lindiwe, would come and play on the machines with my kids.'

The only interruption to the otherwise relentless calm in Dawn Park, Mr Erasmus said, was the sound of children, black and white, playing on the streets. 'When I went to see Dimple the other night, I told her, 'People all over South Africa should come to his place and see what peaceful living is.'

'I don't know of any problems between the neighbours. In fact we all help each other out. Dawn Park is a model for the whole of the Republic of South Africa.'

Mr Erasmus admitted his attitudes had been influenced 'tremendously' by Mr Hani. 'My complete view is not a political one, it is a Christian one. South Africa has lost a great bloody leader. A man who would have stood up and put this country right. In the end the whites would have come around to see this too, that's what's so tragic. They would have learnt. They would have seen that God didn't make the sun just for whites, he made it for everybody.'

The Dawn Park sun will no longer shine on Mr Hani, but on his grave. Ronnie Watson, a white whom Mr Hani recruited to the ANC 20 years ago, was standing outside his home, guarding the family. 'A few weeks ago Chris said that if he should die, he wanted to be buried in the cemetery nearest Dawn Park, alongside the whites. He loved this place. He said here was the vision of the dream he had aspired to all his life, a non-racial South Africa.'

(Photograph omitted)