Chris Hani and the Fire Next Time

April 18, 1993|By JERELYN EDDINGS

Johannesburg, South Africa. -- On his last trip through th rugged Transkei countryside where he grew up, Chris Hani slumped in the back seat of a white Toyota and talked about death. His back was stiff after two hectic days of campaigning through little towns and rural villages. His voice was hoarse, having talked at 14 town meetings. And his words were haunting, considering the fate that awaited him.

''I've never been able to look back,'' he told me, referring to his life as a soldier against apartheid. ''I've always felt I must do everything within my own capacity to continue contributing to the struggle for the final victory for a democratic South Africa.

''I've never wanted to spare myself because I feel there are people who are no longer around who died for this struggle. What right do I have to hold back, to rest, to preserve my health, to have time with my family when there are other people who are no longer alive; when they have sacrificed what is precious, namely life itself.''

Three weeks later, as he entered the driveway of his neat suburban home, the charismatic black leader made the same sacrifice. In a horrific moment, witnessed by a passing white neighbor, he was gunned down last Saturday by a white assassin described as a strident anti-communist and member of a radical white-supremacist group.

When Mr. Hani fell, South Africa lost its second most popular black leader after Nelson Mandela. It also lost the man who stood a better chance than anyone of reining in radical blacks who have rejected negotiations and peace in favor of violence and crime. As this violence-scarred country stumbles toward democracy, Mr. Mandela remains the legend of the century. But it was Chris Hani, tough, outgoing and outspoken, whom many considered the man of the hour. Had he lived, he might have become the most important leader in South Africa.

* * *

Mr. Hani was a committed communist since 1961 and an activist in the African National Congress since 1957, but his major role was as the top guerrilla fighter in the ANC's army, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation.) He fled the country in 1963 to join Umkhonto and returned a decade later as a trained and hardened soldier on a secret mission to set up an underground network of activists sworn to fight apartheid.

He survived three assassination attempts -- two attempts to blow up his car while he was driving and a massive raid by South African troops into his headquarters in neighboring Lesotho in which 40 ANC activists were killed.

After a while, the name Chris Hani entered the folklore of the anti-apartheid struggle. The South African security forces labeled him Public Enemy No. 1, which made him all the more popular on the ground among the militant township youth.

When he came back to South Africa in 1990, as apartheid began to fall, he was cheered wildly in black townships. He appeared at political rallies in camouflage fatigues, and young men danced joyously with toy AK-47s, the Soviet-made rifle used by Umkhonto rebels. At the time he was chief of staff of Umkhonto, a member of the ANC's executive committee and a leading member of the communist party's central committee. He became the general secretary in late 1991.

It was his popularity among the youth that made him so important to South Africa's future. If they would listen to anyone, they would listen to Chris Hani when he called for peace, as he had done in the last months of his life.

''He had the ability to kill, but he talked peace,'' said Mondli Gungubeli, an ANC activist who knew him well.

Because of his credentials and influence with the youth, Mr. Hani was the best hope for South Africa to control violence among township youngsters who had become disenchanted and frustrated with the pace of change and were fast slipping out of the control of the ANC.

In the week before he died, he had proposed that a civilian peace corps be established in black communities to replace the township ''self-defense units'' that were becoming increasingly violent. He also condemned terrorist attacks on innocent whites and campaigned vigorously for peaceful negotiations. He had even started winning over whites who once saw him as a dangerous terrorist. A few weeks before he died, he met with a group of conservative Afrikaners, who walked away smiling and saying they had misjudged him all these years.

Many of his neighbors were whites who seemed genuinely to like him, although some whites moved out and others complained bitterly when he moved his wife Dimpho and their three daughters into the predominantly white, conservative suburb of Boksburg, south of Johannesburg.

The move was made in ignorance, he explained. It was a nice house at an affordable price. ''And when there was a hullabaloo from the right-wing that I should move out, then I decided I was not going to move. Because if I had done that I would have encouraged all the mad right-wingers in this country to bully us. And I was not going to be bullied.''

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