Chris Hani, National Liberation, and Apartheid’s Murderous Legacies

This post is part of our forum on “The End of South African Apartheid Anniversary.” 

Chris Hani Monument in Ekurhuleni, Boksburg (Wikimedia Commons/Sabata Mcatshulwa)

On April 10, 1993, the anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani was assassinated on the driveway of his suburban Johannesburg home by white supremacist Janusz Waluś. Hani’s death, which sparked nationwide demonstrations, changed the course of South African history both in the immediate aftermath and in the post-apartheid era. It accelerated negotiations between the African National Congress (ANC) and the ruling National Party while paradoxically limiting the horizons of a post-apartheid society. In this explosive context, the colonial state weaponized white nationalism, as embodied by people like Waluś, both to normalize its own bargaining position and to neutralize the ANC’s most radical demands.

As the ANC’s military leader, Chris Hani contributed immeasurably to the liberation struggle. Historians variously describe him as incorruptible, “a hero in the townships,” “a life force in the resistance,” and one of the struggle’s “most outstanding figures.” Nelson Mandela characterized Hani as “one of the greatest freedom fighters this country has ever known.” Hani was second only to Mandela in popularity among Black South Africans. After his death for instance, inmates at Pretoria Central Prison pooled their miniscule allowances to support the slain leader’s family.

Born in a poor rural Eastern Cape village in 1942, Hani grew to political maturity at the University of Fort Hare, where he encountered Marxism and “the scope and nature of the racist capitalist system.” He joined the South African Communist Party (SACP), which soon landed him in jail under the infamous Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. But Hani jumped bail and went into exile.

During this time he received military training and joined the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Hani quickly ascended MK’s ranks and became an exemplary military leader. Under his direction, MK carried out periodic cross-border operations in South Africa, including bombings and sabotage campaigns. Hani was the last ANC leader to gain provisional amnesty when negotiations began in 1990. He returned home that March. For decades, he was subject to extensive surveillance operations and numerous assassination attempts. The South African Security Forces regarded him as “Public Enemy No. 1,” so his assassination on April 10, 1993, must therefore be analyzed in this context.

Massive protests shook the country in the ensuing days. The ANC declared Wednesday April 14 as a day of protests and called on people to stay home from work. Some four million workers stayed away and 2.5 million flooded the streets. Hani’s funeral was the largest in South Africa’s history. While isolated acts of violent resistance flared up, state repression was systematic and disproportionate. The government deployed the army and imposed a curfew. By Wednesday’s end, at least seventeen were dead across the country and five hundred suffered injuries. President F.W. de Klerk upbraided the protesters, saying “What happened in South Africa today cannot be tolerated in any civilized country.” His statement typified that of a colonial authority. Critics called out the president’s racist rhetoric, particularly since the state brutalized Black protesters while willfully ignoring armed whites.

Government officials, ANC leaders, and journalists feared a war might break out. Although the threat of escalation was real, a war against Black South Africans was already transpiring. In 1990 the ANC’s armed wing laid down its arms to advance the negotiation process. During talks however, the apartheid regime oversaw a proxy war in the townships. In June 1992 government proxies massacred dozens of residents in Boipatong. ANC leaders halted negotiations after the Boipatong Massacre.

“The brand of strategic violence we have been seeing in our country,” Hani explained, “is known in U.S. military parlance as ‘low-intensity war’.” This kind of warfare aimed to achieve not military victory, but political victory. The negotiations resumed ten days before Hani was killed, but his death marked another escalation. Regime supporters thus feared the liberation struggle might again take up arms.

The regime had long portrayed Hani as an obstacle to negotiations. Days before the assassination, the media alleged that Hani and senior MK leaders met with other liberation organizations to “secure mutual cooperation so as to derail” negotiations. It was a fabricated accusation. Hani had previously expressed willingness to pull the ANC from talks and resume the armed struggle if the government did not show a genuine commitment to ending apartheid. This was a justifiable position, but it did not mean he opposed negotiations.

The fictitious allegations constituted part of an extensive psychological war to discredit the liberation struggle and particularly Hani. The disinformation campaign against Hani began in 1992 and peaked the week before the assassination. The apartheid state stood to benefit both from the campaign and from his actual death. As such, the circumstances around his death merit further scrutiny.

The police apprehended Janusz Waluś minutes after the murder. Within hours, the police announced that Waluś had acted alone. Most South Africans rejected this story. A Polish immigrant who moved to South Africa in 1981, Waluś was politically active and a member of the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) group. He was also close with Conservative Party politician Clive Derby-Lewis, who was later implicated. Derby-Lewis supplied Waluś with the murder weapon, which was part of a weapons cache recently stolen from an armory by AWB. After the weapons heist, Hani forewarned that the weapons shifted into different hands to execute covert operations.

The police eventually uncovered Waluś’s connections with the Conservative Party, which opposed negotiations, and concluded that Hani’s assassination was a rightwing plot. The rightwing conspiracy narrative became institutionalized into the Hani assassination lore. The colonial state’s claim to be a neutral investigator was paramount. The state delinked itself from the far-right forces it said had perpetrated Hani’s murder.

However evidence exists to suggest that the state was actively involved in the assassination. In 1997 the New Nation gained access to a leaked intelligence document that identified over twenty people in the conspiracy, including a police general and Military Intelligence operatives. According to the report, plans for the assassination began in July 1992. The apartheid regime also infiltrated many far-right organizations. But rather than keeping these groups under tabs, the state weaponized them to attack anti-apartheid leaders. Thus, the state could easily carry out violence in the name of far-right groups and subsequently pin blame on them.

The fabricated discrepancy reinforced the regime’s legitimacy as a “committed partner” in the transition process and even gave the National Party negotiating leverage. Government officials could point to the actions of far-right forces and convincingly argue that should negotiations fail, those forces might come to power. By sidelining evidence that undermined the official story, the invented discrepancy also circumscribed the transformative possibilities of a post-apartheid society. The transition could have included land reform, a socialist path, and greater involvement of the resistance fighters. Instead the post-apartheid state had little choice but to align itself with foreign capital.

Hani was wary of such an outcome. He insisted MK guerrillas have a leading role in the post-apartheid security apparatus. Hani also championed the class struggle embedded in the South African liberation struggle. “We must never forget that the struggle is about lifting our people out of poverty,” he told supporters in the village of Qoqodale. “You have worked in the mines to uplift white people, but you are still waiting for essential services.” Hani also foresaw imperial powers exploiting post-apartheid South Africa. When MK leaders met with British Aerospace (BAE) to start negotiating a weapons deal for the post-apartheid state, Hani was apprehensive. Other ANC leaders advocated for a deal in order to establish partnerships with the West. BAE South Africa became incorporated in 1997.

In many ways, apartheid’s legacy persists. South Africa has been discouraged from pursuing transformative policies, including land reform. As of 2017, whites owned 72 percent of farms and agricultural holdings with individual landowners, whereas Black Africans held just 4 percent. When neighboring Zimbabwe instituted reforms to expropriate land from white settlers in the early 2000s, the US and Europe imposed sanctions on the country. The sanctions remain in place and have crippled Zimbabwe’s economy.1 Zimbabwe’s example long discouraged South Africa from pursuing land reforms, though the current government has initiated the process. The recent reform effort indicates that South Africa aims to shake the stranglehold of imperialism.

In early 2024, the South African government presented a legal challenge in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), seeking to stop the Israeli genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. This moral position aligns with Chris Hani’s ethics and experiences as an anti-colonial liberation fighter.

US legislators responded to the ICJ case by presenting a bipartisan bill in Congress to review whether South Africa has engaged in activities “that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests.” The bill aims to intimidate and possibly impose sanctions on South Africa for its anti-genocide stand and for its foreign policy, which has recently gravitated away from the US and Europe.

Despite these punitive efforts, US imperialism cannot outlast the intergenerational endurance of anti-colonial resistance. “I’ve never wanted to spare myself because I feel there are people who are no longer around who died for this struggle,” Hani said months before his death. The struggle against apartheid’s legacy continues, just as South Africa plays a leading role in the global struggle against imperialism. Chris Hani and the liberation fighters of South Africa paved the way to this future.

  1. In March 2024, the U.S. announced it was lifting some of the sanctions against Zimbabwe, particularly those imposed by Executive Order. At the same time, the U.S. declared new sanctions against designated Zimbabwean individuals under the Global Magnitsky program. U.S. congressional sanctions, known euphemistically as the “Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act” (ZDERA), also remain in place. The U.S.’s unilateral sanctions against Global South countries are deemed to “violate human rights and international norms of behavior,” and Zimbabwe has called for a complete halt of all the sanctions. The lifting of the decades-old Executive Order sanctions nonetheless constitutes a significant victory for Zimbabwe.
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Navid Farnia

Navid Farnia is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies at Wayne State University. His research broadly explores the relationship between racial oppression in the United States and U.S. imperialism. Dr. Farnia is currently working on a book manuscript, National Liberation in an Imperialist World: Race, Counterrevolution, and the United States, which examines how the United States responded to national liberation movements at home and abroad from the 1950s to 1980. The book makes sense of the U.S. national security state’s evolution by showing how the strategies and tactics used against liberation movements triggered modern forms of policing and warfare. Dr. Farnia is also on the steering committee for the International People’s Tribunal on U.S. Imperialism, which investigates the effects of sanctions, blockades, and economic coercive measures imposed by the U.S. on Global South countries.

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