Janusz Walus, who murdered Chris Hani in 1993, was granted parole in a South African courtroom last month. Walus, 60, had served 23 years of a life sentence. His release follows the 2015 release on parole of Clive Derby-Lewis, the former Conservative Party MP who ordered the murder of Hani.
Janusz Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis
While the judge in Walus’ case coldly suggested that the Hani family should “move on” after their frustration with the decision, it brings back into the fold the man that Chris Hani was and what he did for South African freedom. For many throughout South Africa, they will not be “moving on,” but will continue to remember Hani as one of the country’s greatest freedom fighters.
Hani had joined the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s and was among the first volunteers for the military wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe. In 1963, he chose to go into exile to train to be able to one day come back and fight to free his country of oppression.
Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers training in Angola
In August 1967, he was a commander in the infamous Wankie operation, one of a number of attempts made by Umkhonto we Sizwe and ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army) to infiltrate trained cadres back into South Africa through Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). They wanted to establish routes back home to South Africa for MK fighters, and Hani’s inspiration for this came from Vietnam’s liberation struggle. He was trying to create his own Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Africa, and the battle that ensued was “one of the most courageous…in the history of the ANC,” according to Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp in their book, Hani: A Life Too Short.
But his mission suffered from inadequate weapons, intelligence, maps, and men. They eventually surrendered, but only after a number of early successes in battle.
For Hani, this combat experience had turned him into an admired leader with authority. It was, after all, the first time South African liberation forces had engaged the enemy in battle. “The Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns were the largest-scale military conflicts that MK engaged in throughout its 30-year history,” according to Janet Cherry, author of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
According to Smith and Tromp, Hani’s courage “gave hope to those fighting for liberation all across Africa, echoing throughout South Africa and inspiring a new generation. The legend of Chris Hani was born.”
As Hani said, “although we didn’t succeed, I think we inspired the population.”
Hani was the head of a group of young cadres who was not content on sitting around and talking and waiting for change to come to South Africa. In his eyes, the time had come for talk to be turned into action, and he grew frustrated by the ANC leadership for not having the same immediacy to their strategy.
Hani particularly targeted Thabo Mbeki, the son of ANC stalwart Govan Mbeki. Hani and Mbeki were ideological opposites. While Hani went to war in Wankie, Mbeki was studying abroad at the University of Sussex in England, funded by the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the white liberal student organization. While MK cadres had been killed in battle, some of the children of the ANC leadership were studying in Europe. Hani and others believed they would enjoy the comforts abroad, and return home only once the battle was won. For this, he detested them.
Hani wanted deeds, not words. He wanted to fight for liberation, not wait for it to passively come along.
It was Hani who led the fight at the Morogoro Conference in Tanzania in 1969 where the ANC agreed to reinvigorate itself, deciding with renewed vigor to infiltrate South Africa both militarily and politically.
It was Hani who was the hero of the youth generation who fled South Africa after the 1976 Soweto Uprising. To them, he symbolized the courage and willingness to fight, and the whole reason they fled the country was to train and arm themselves to be able to return to fight for their country’s freedom. Hani symbolized that fighting spirit to them.
But by 1990, events in South Africa had changed, and Hani returned to South Africa from exile. Hani viewed the situation different from the ANC leadership, though. He believed fervently in the armed struggle and felt it needed to continue as MK wanted a military victory over the apartheid regime.
However, with negotiations and the suspension of the armed struggle, Hani’s dreams of a military victory over apartheid had fallen to the wayside.
Politically, with Mandela free and assuming the mantle of the ANC, the role of deputy president was hotly contested between Thabo Mbeki and Hani. According to Smith and Tromp, “In Mbeki, they saw a consummate diplomat who had led many of the negotiations with the apartheid state up until then, and been instrumental in rallying much of the world behind the cause of the ANC. … Hani was the voice for those who believed the Nationalist overtures at parleying were nothing more than a gambit and could not be trusted. When the time came, the ANC would be ready, gun in hand, to embark on a new era of warfare.”
In fact, Hani had such overwhelming support that a 1991 cable recently released by Wikileaks states that “Many observers believe that Hani would trounce Mbeki if there were a popular vote among ANC supporters.”
Walter Sisulu put an end to the tensions by putting his name in the ring and agreeing to become deputy president under Mandela.
However, Janusz Walus and Conservative Party MP Clive Derby-Lewis were busy planning Hani’s assassination.
Hani had been targeted for years for assassination by the apartheid regime. According to Smith and Tromp, the task of eliminating Hani started in 1980 with the Security Branch. From car bombs to army raids, Hani was the target of the apartheid regime but they were unsuccessful for years.
Walus and Derby-Lewis would ultimately be successful, though. They had hoped national grief would emanate out of the assassination of Hani, that this would extend into violence, that the violence would rupture into anarchy, and the anarchy in the apartheid regime maintaining its power in the country.
In April 1993, at the age of 51, Chris Hani was assassinated in the driveway of his home in Johannesburg by Walus.
When he killed Hani, Walus was 38 years old. An immigrant from Poland, he had made a life for himself in South Africa for over a decade at this point. He was a fervent right-wing supporter who was willing to do whatever possible to prevent the supposed communist ANC from taking over. Within days, Walus gave the police the name of his mentor and the man who arranged and planned the assassination, Clive Derby-Lewis.
At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1997, Walus and Derby-Lewis admitted their intent: to provoke a race war and derail a negotiation process that would inevitably lead to the end of white minority rule.
Both Derby-Lewis and Walus were sentenced to death in October 1993 for the assassination, but the ANC opposed the death penalty, so the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.
Two amazing events happened in the immediate aftermath of Hani’s death that helped shape the nation over the next several years. The police were able to so quickly track down Walus after the assassination due to Retha Harmse, who was passing by Hani’s house when the shooting occurred. Harmse, an Afrikaner woman, took down the license plate number of Walus’ car and turned this information over to the police. Her actions made her a hero that night when Nelson Mandela, in an effort to calms the anger of the country, addressed the nation on national television. In an impassioned speech meant to contain the violent backlash, Mandela recognized Harmse’s courage as a symbol of the unity that people could look to for unity.
In Mandela’s speech that night, “Chris Hani is irreplaceable in the heart of our nation and people.”
In many ways, it was this speech that made Mandela the de facto leader of the nation, regardless of the fact that the elections were not for another year.
In an obituary for Hani, published in the Independent on Sunday, British journalist John Carlin wrote: “If 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 black youth, the symbol of armed resistance.”
Hani was Mandela’s likely future heir. With his wide support amongst the youth and his history of leading military campaigns and his leftist leanings, who knows what a Hani-led South Africa would have been like.
But it’s not clear whether Hani would have stayed in politics had he lived, and – if he had – whether he would have beaten Thabo Mbeki in a race to succeed Mandela to the presidency. Whatever his decision, Hani would undoubtedly have been an energetic part of the post-apartheid nation-building process that transformed South African institutions and implemented one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, all supported by an independent judiciary and a free press.
As a committed communist, Hani would have welcomed the expansion of access to housing, electricity and water across the country, but he would have no doubt been critical of the free market economic model that the ANC adopted. Over 20 years since the election of Mandela to power, Hani would no doubt have had much to say about the fact that one in four South Africans is unemployed and over a million people still live in sub-standard housing.
Hani dedicated his entire adult life to the struggle for democracy and freedom in South Africa. He stands among the pantheon of South African icons who brought freedom to the country and helped to end the brutal system of apartheid. Hani stands tall amongst the likes of Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo, Sobukwe, Luthuli, Biko, and Tutu. As Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp state in their book, Hani: A Life Too Short, Hani was “one of the world’s great revolutionary heroes.”