News | Party / Movement History - Southern Africa - Democratic Socialism Chris Hani’s Dream Deferred

Thirty years after the South African revolutionary was murdered, socialism remains a distant goal



Rebone Tau,

Chris Hani at a meeting of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) in Johannesburg, 21 December 1991. Photo: IMAGO / agefotostock

This year marks 30 years since the assassination of one of the most respected leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, Chris Hani. The Polish right-wing racist Janusz Jakub Waluś assassinated Hani on 10 April 1993 outside his home in Dawn Park, a suburb of Boksburg, South Africa. He acted on instructions from a member of the far-right Conservative Party of South Africa, Clive John Derby-Lewis,[1] who gave Waluś a gun, money, and his target.

Rebone Tau works as a programme manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southern Africa Office in Johannesburg.

Hani was the former leader of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Chief of Staff of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), uMkhonto we Sizwe (“spear of the nation”, often abbreviated as MK). Thirty years after his murder, Hani remains wildly popular among many, especially black South Africans. The more they feel a sense of betrayal, the more his mythical-cum-iconic status flourishes in their minds.

Modern South Africa is far from the kind of society that Hani and other stalwarts of liberation envisioned. It is at odds with what he spoke and wrote about, and, dare I say, if he were alive today, Hani would be thoroughly disgusted with what his former political homes, the ANC and the SACP, have become. However, to do justice to the man’s memory, it is important to go a few decades back and briefly chart his rise to the apex of South African politics.

Born into the Struggle

Hani was born on 28 June 1942 in the rural town of Cofimvaba in the former Cape Province. The pro-apartheid National Party came into power only a few years later, in 1948, and enforced racial segregation, discrimination against non-white populations, and forced resettlement of blacks into so-called “Bantustans”, de facto republics conceived along tribal lines.

Hani's experiences of growing up under apartheid and witnessing the injustices inflicted upon black South Africans shaped his political views and led him to the anti-apartheid struggle. He joined mainstream politics at the age of 15 when he became a card-carrying member of the ANC Youth League.

Although he did not know it at the time, Hani had identified the rot that would one day infect most of his party.

Like many black leaders of his time, Hani studied at the University of Fort Hare, one of the few universities that accepted black South African students during the apartheid era. Other black leaders who passed through Fort Hare’s hallowed gates included Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, and Robert Sobukwe. Hani was deeply involved in student activism and ultimately expelled for his political activities in 1963.

He joined the ANC and SACP from abroad in Lesotho. He later became a leader of uMkhonto we Sizwe, founded after black leaders concluded that the apartheid system could not be brought down by civil disobedience alone. They would bring it down by any means necessary, including armed resistance involving acts of sabotage against key infrastructure such as power stations, power lines, and factories.

As Radical as Reality Itself

Hani grew up in a society where black South Africans were not regarded as equal citizens. He believed strongly in the need for armed struggle against the apartheid government and was a key strategist in planning and carrying out guerrilla attacks against the regime. For this reason, the apartheid government developed a particular hatred for him and other resistance fighters of his ilk, and placed a target on his back.

Yet, Hani was fearless. Even as he fought against the apartheid system, he steeped himself in the revolutionary ideology that he shared with his comrades.

Hani was a non-racialist, a committed Marxist, and a vocal advocate for democracy. He believed that the struggle against apartheid was not only a fight against racism, but also a fight for economic and social justice. He was critical of the neoliberal economic policies of the post-apartheid government and called for the nationalization of key industries and the redistribution of wealth.

Hani was a man of the people. He knew how to harangue crowds and deliver long speeches in which he easily explained matters of policy to cheering supporters and sympathizers. The fact that he often appeared in military fatigues was a symbol to show that he was a committed fighter for social and economic rights.

In 1969, Hani and six of his comrades delivered a landmark memorandum to the historic ANC conference in Morogoro, Tanzania, remembered today as the “Hani Memorandum”:

We are disturbed by the careerism of the ANC Leadership Abroad who have, in every sense, become professional politicians rather than professional revolutionaries. We have been forced to draw the conclusion that the payment of salaries to people working in offices is very detrimental to the revolutionary outlook is of those who receive such monies. It is without doubt that such payments corrupt cadres at any level and have the effect of making people perform their duties or fill offices because of money inducement rather than dedication to the cause — they become in effect merely salaried employees of the movement. It is high time that all members and cadres of the ANC, be they in MK or not, should receive equal treatment and be judged only on the basis of their dedication and sacrifice to the cause we serve.

Although he did not know it at the time, Hani had identified the rot that would one day infect most of his party. This courage to say unpopular things evinced his commitment to true revolution in South Africa.

He once famously stated during an interview, “what I fear is that the liberators emerge as elitists who drive around in Mercedes Benzes and use the resources of this country to live in palaces and to gather riches”. He went on to explain that,

Socialism is not about big concepts and heavy theory. Socialism is about decent shelter for those who are homeless. It is about water for those who have no safe drinking water. It is about health care, it is about a life of dignity for the old. It is about overcoming the huge divide between urban and rural areas. It is about a decent education for all our people.

Communists and Capital

Almost 30 years have passed since the historic elections in April 1994 that brought the ANC to power. It is safe to say that, although black South Africans are in a better place than they were under the apartheid system, they continue to harvest the grapes of wrath from a neoliberal system in which corruption and trickle-down economics continue to trap the overwhelming majority of the people in poverty.

Looking at at the SACP and ANC today, they do not reflect Hani’s dream of socialist revolution ensuring equal opportunity and resources for all. There is almost a sense that, as one politician once famously put it, “we did not struggle to be poor”.

The political class has seamlessly merged with the private capitalist class, morphing into political entrepreneurs who seek to have the biggest houses and the biggest cars in the suburbs. They are not in touch with the realities on the ground or the material conditions in which most South African live. Long gone is their political consciousness, even if some continue to quote Hani, Cabral, Machel, and other leaders of the liberation struggle.

The majority of black South Africans continue to receive a second-class education, second-class jobs, and second-class living conditions. The SACP leadership, however, appears more concerned with preserving the capitalist status quo than fighting for socialism.

South Africa is a country beset by numerous challenges. Unemployment currently stands at 34 percent, with youth unemployment hovering around 69 percent. The health system has collapsed, sucked dry by so-called “tenderpreneurs” who use insider connections to secure generous contracts from the state. The government has failed to implement its promised National Health Insurance scheme, forcing many South Africans to purchase supplementary insurance from the private sector. Yet, it has been reported that 90 percent of the population cannot afford such insurance.

While the ANC has built over 1 million houses for the poor, many of them are of low quality, as the case in the Free State, where low-income houses were built with materials containing asbestos, proved. The former Secretary General of the ANC, Ace Magashule, is currently out on bail after being linked to the asbestos contracts while he was Premier of the Free State.

This case and others show how South African politicians work hand-in-glove with businesspeople to swindle money from the state.

A Dream Deferred

The SACP remains a key part of the tripartite alliance that has governed South Africa since 1994. The party remained a close ally of the ANC during the catastrophic state capture era under Jacob Zuma, for which it was rewarded with ministerial posts. None of the SACP leaders resigned, even after irrefutable evidence that Zuma’s cronies were collapsing the economy came to light.

Thulas Nxesi, an SACP Central Committee member, was the Minister of Public Works during the Nkandla saga, when 203 million rand (roughly 10 million euro) were spent on so-called “security upgrades” to Zuma’s home. Nxesi defended the money that was spent and even went so far as to justify the building of a swimming pool, arguing that it was a “fire pool”. How can a leader of a Communist Party defend such wastefulness?

The SACP fails to hold the ANC accountable as its alliance partner on some of the things happening in South Africa today, including, most recently, the Phala Phala saga, when millions of US dollars were stolen from one of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s farms in Limpopo Province. No one knows if this money came from illicit financial flows, while the SACP sees no wrongdoing, nor any problem with a sitting president keeping so much money in his house.

South Africa faces many challenges, such as land distribution, unemployment, gender-based violence, rampant poverty, climate change, and crime. Land in particular remains a contentious issue, as South Africa is still firmly in the hands of a small minority, i.e. those who control the means of production. Yet, while the ANC continues to come up with policies around land, but the SACP fails to put any pressure on its coalition ally when it comes to parliamentary legislation around accelerated land reform.

The majority of black South Africans continue to receive a second-class education, second-class jobs, and second-class living conditions. The SACP leadership, however, appears more concerned with preserving the capitalist status quo than fighting for socialism. Chris Hani would turn in his grave if he knew.

In the meantime, both of the men who took Hani’s life, Clive John Derby-Lewis and Janusz Jakub Waluś, were released on parole — against the wishes of the Hani family.

[1] Derby-Lewis was a founding member of the Conservative Party, a formation that splintered from the National Party in 1982 due to a softening of the government’s racial segregation policies. Derby-Lewis wanted the National Party to remain a driver of hard-core apartheid policies to the end. In 2004, the Conservative Party merged with the Freedom Front Plus, which has always been to the right of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, and is very active in South Africa’s rural heartlands.