Long shadow of one man's death: Richard Dowden explains why Chris Hani's killing may not spark an inferno

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The Independent Online
PERHAPS the most striking thing about the murder of Chris Hani, the general secretary of the South African Communist Party, is that it did not happen earlier. To most whites he was the black Communist demon king who personified their worst nightmares. For this reason alone he was a particular target of racist extremism.

Yet, like many of the African National Congress leaders, he seemed to take the attitude that if someone is determined to kill you, there is nothing much you can do to stop them. The casual way in which he dismissed his driver and bodyguard last Saturday was typical of his lack of concern for his personal security. That fatalistic view was given an added dimension by his outrageous decision to live in Dawn Park, Boksburg. It was the equivalent of Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, moving to Surbiton.

Hani had said that he chose Boksburg because houses were cheaper there; once he moved in, though, he sensed the outrage and determined to stay there out of defiance and amusement. This was always a risky attitude, considering the depth and breadth of hatred one hears from some South African whites. Now he has paid for it with his life. But how will his death affect South Africa?

Those who try to predict South Africa's future usually append to their prognostications the caveat 'as long as something terrible doesn't happen like the assassination of Nelson Mandela or one of the other ANC leaders'. With the death of Hani something terrible has happened. But Hani was not the simple figure he often seemed.

Although much has been made latterly of his charm and moderation, he probably presented a greater and earlier threat to apartheid than any other ANC leader. In 1988, when he was chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the ANC's military wing, he gave an interview in Lusaka to the New York Times in which he said that whites helping to enforce apartheid were legitimate targets and that the liberation struggle had to be taken to white areas 'to make apartheid expensive in terms of financial resources and in terms of lives'. His words were immediately repudiated by Oliver Tambo, the president of the ANC, and did not change ANC policy on attacking civilian targets. His statement seemed designed rather to create a bogeyman


Hani's name was already a legend in the black community. He had taken part in the Maoist-style march by South African guerrillas through Rhodesia in 1967. It ended in disaster, but he was one of the few to emerge from it with some credit. When thousands of young blacks fled South Africa in the mid-Eighties seeking weapons to hit back at apartheid, most were sceptical about the ANC, but they knew who Chris Hani was - a militant ready to attack, as they were - and they were ready to follow him.

In fact, when Hani did emerge from the shadows in 1990, he surprised everyone by openly announcing his affiliation to the South African Communist Party - and then pursuing a middle-of-the-road political line. While other 'young Turks' jostled for a place in the shadow of the recently released Nelson Mandela, Hani went off to the Transkei, his home area, where he sought to build a power base. It was a puzzling strategy if Hani was ultimately seeking political power. On the one hand it seemed to say that the Communist Party would emerge with power in South Africa, having separated from the ANC; on the other, that a real power base in South Africa was built not by speech- making in Johannesburg and the big cities but by doing the rounds in one's own rural constituency.

Such a strategy might have made sense if Hani had remained a wild man on the fringe of the ANC, prophesying doom and destruction, biding and creating his time. But the bare bones of his speeches, however stirring, were always well within the policy of the ANC. In many ways he had become a moderate.

Had he sought populist power he might also have been tempted towards the extreme Pan-Africanist philosophy crudely expressed in the slogan 'one settler, one bullet'. Many bright young militants from the townships have been attracted to this simple tribal philosophy held by the Azanain People's Liberation Army (Apla) - the group responsible for killing four whites and injuring 20 others at a golf club in King William's Town last November. But Hani went out of his way to condemn the killings, pointing out that the struggle was against apartheid, not against whites.

Hani was an enigma: regarded as an extremist by whites and a radical militant by his own rank and file, he had become a moderate. As such, he remained an important but not vital player.

If his young hero worshippers ignore his own commands and find in his death the cause for war, his killing could provide the spark that starts the inferno. But if South Africa follows the pattern of the rest of Africa, this is unlikely. Throughout the struggle for independence Africa has experienced remarkably little violence directed at whites. After the bitterest of wars, notably in Kenya and Zimbabwe, there was rarely vengeance or retribution during the struggle for independence, still less after it.

Even if tomorrow's day of action gets out of control, the old apartheid regime that planned South Africa's geography placed the black townships a long bus ride away from white areas. And the black areas have been so designed that they can be cut off and contained by security forces. In the mid-Eighties, at the height of the township uprisings, trouble rarely spilt over from the townships and never reached the white suburbs.

Any decision to ring the townships and crack down militarily would place the ANC and the government in an appallingly difficult position. Despite all the ups and downs of the last three years, they have established an understanding of each other and of the shape of the 'New South Africa'. The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), which is the negotiating forum for all the major political players in South Africa, is supposed to be creating a transitional executive council to prepare for an elected constituent assembly. The elections for the assembly are scheduled for sometime between the end of this year and next April.

Like men working frantically to build a house before the tornado breaks, the government and the ANC have nothing to gain by delaying, however bitterly they may fight over the design of the house. Both must look over their shoulders to their constituencies, which will have to live in the house afterwards. They live in constant fear that it will be torn down or bombed before it is finished; yet the budget is diminishing and will not increase until the house is built.

This week the fear is in the ANC camp. Tomorrow is their day of action for the murder of Chris Hani and it will be filled with grief and rage. Their leaders will want better security for themselves, tougher police action against racist attacks and further concessions from the government. But they will pray that the rage will not lead to anything that could delay the completion of the new house.

(Photograph omitted)