Hani funeral turned into political rally

April 20, 1993|By New York Times News Service

BOKSBURG, South Africa -- South Africa, a country that has measured out its history in funerals, yesterday turned the burial of an assassinated black Communist into the largest political rite since the celebration of Nelson Mandela's release from prison three years ago.

Before a crowd that overflowed an 80,000-seat soccer arena and a live audience on the government-controlled television and radio, the African National Congress ushered Chris Hani into its pantheon of martyrs with a ceremony that was part military funeral, part campaign rally, part canonization.

Then, as if to show that Mr. Hani could unsettle the established order in death as he did in life, they buried him to the crackle of gunfire in a nervous white neighborhood that is a stronghold of F. W. de Klerk's National Party.

The killing nine days ago of Mr. Hani, whose popularity was second only to Mr. Mandela's, ignited riots in several cities last week and provoked fevered speculation by both blacks and whites about a race war.

But despite the combination of great anger and many guns, the explosion many feared did not take place. There was some scattered violence, but the day ended with relieved predictions that the country could now resume the business of negotiating its way to democracy.

At the outset, the day promised violence. Tensions were stoked by news of yet another township massacre the night before, an unexplained drive-by slaughter that left 19 dead in Sebokeng, 30 miles south of Johannesburg.

Across the street from the cemetery where Mr. Hani was buried, some homeowners in the Elspark subdivision of Boksburg accepted offers of protection by shotgun-toting vigilantes from the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, one of the right-wing groups to which Mr. Hani's accused assassin belongs.

The gunmen sat in patio chairs or on rooftops and jeered the phalanxes of black mourners who danced through the white suburb en route to the graveyard.

Other whites who watched the black mourners converge on their neighborhood said they were anxious about black looters or graveyard vandals, but even more worried by the ostentatious white gunslingers.

Mr. Hani, who had a mischievous sense of humor, might have found much to amuse him yesterday: the burial with full Roman Catholic ceremony of a man who, though he once considered becoming a priest, may have been an atheist at his death (he was elusive when asked about his faith); the voluntary shutdown of virtually all business and industry to honor the leader of the Communist Party; the torrent of abuse heaped on Mr. de Klerk's government, broadcast on the government's airwaves.

Funerals have long been political milestones in South Africa. When opposition politics was banned, the graveyard was the only relatively uncensored gathering place.

Mr. Hani's death cost the African National Congress its most charismatic militant, and to compensate, the congress transformed the funeral ceremony into an unabashed campaign rally.

Mr. Mandela, introduced to the crowd as South Africa's next president, delivered an oration calibrated to annex the anger of Mr. Hani's militant followers without inflaming it.

"We want peace, but we are not pacifists," he declared. "We are all militants. We are all radicals."

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