For a brief time in the late 1980′s I had occasion to spend some time with Chris Hani, then Chief of Staff of the ANC’s uMkhonto we Sizwe and Secretary General of the South African Communist Party.
I was working for the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA) and a meeting between the ANC’s military and the South African Defence Force seemed like a natural extension and deepening of the work IDASA had done in putting the white establishment in contact with the ANC.
I met Chris several times in Lusaka where we prepared the agenda – and then, obviously, at the conference and several times afterwards.
He was an interesting guy – serious, charming and slightly too ready to tell me the story of how he travelled, through the underground, into danger, with Pliny, Virgil and Shakespeare in his knapsack … I’m not perfectly sure of the actual authors and titles of the classics he carried, but the point was that he mentioned, more than once, that he did so.
I was already aware in those days of the depth of murderous gangsterism that had enveloped Joe Modise’s leadership of MK – a trend and tendency he took with him into Mandela’s first cabinet and helped set the ANC’s elite on the course for the destination it has reached.
Chris was the great hope for cleaning up Modise’s mess and he was also seen as an antidote to Thabo Mbeki’s technocratic shuttle-diplomacy.
I became aware while organising the conference that some ANC strategists were using the opportunity to show Chris Hani was just as charming and able to talk to whites as Mbeki.
I asked him, in my naivety, about the rumours that he and Mbeki were competitors. He convincingly, to my ears, pooh-poohed the idea saying that he and Thabo were like a tag team, each with his own strengths, but united in the identical goal – and further, he claimed, they were good friends as well.
I had no special intelligence to validate (or otherwise) this claim. Perhaps they were. Perhaps they would have been the A-Team of the post Mandela administration, balancing each other’s faults, playing to each other’s strengths. I know it’s unlikely, but it is difficult not to dream of how things might have been.
As it happened Chris was almost disturbingly charming and persuasive at the conference.
We only managed to get ex-SADF and Bantustan leaders as well as a whole lot of shady and not so shady military and arms dealer types on the domestic delegation.
I have reason to suspect that I might have brought the running dogs of the global arms trade along with that delegation and I often shudder at the thought that I might have played a role in helping the global arms corporations bury their deadly wasp eggs deep into the ANC, later to hatch and gorge themselves just carefully enough so that the host stays alive … but I comfort myself with the fact that Joe Modise had long since sold his and the ANC’s soul to the worst and most rapacious branch of global capitalism.
I remember watching Chris holding forth late one night; he stood behind two seated and coyly smiling white men with thick rugby players necks – there is a reason stereotypes are stereotypes! Chris had a hand on each of their shoulders and he was rubbing them as he spoke with languid and swelling rhythms, about the future of non-racialism and shared patriotism that awaited us.
The big white guys were in love; it gleamed out of their teary eyes and Chris had his head back and eyes closed like he was conducting an exorcism.
I don’t know if Chris Hani would have made a difference if he had lived.
Only a precious few have managed to resist the seemingly irresistible pull towards corruption and greed. You watch all of your friends and comrades become part of that system (the same system that laid its eggs in the ANC that would later hatch into the Arms Scandal and worse), the memory of the ideals that drove you become vague … everyone else is doing it, what is the point in me hanging on while they are all busy with the business of securing themselves for life?
It was Tokyo Sexwale who wept beside Chris Hani’s body on 10th April 1993 outside the house in Boksburg. There was something about Chris that reminds me of Tokyo Sexwale (who I do not know personally but seems to exude a similar charisma that makes one think of a suspiciously charming pirate).
Reading Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble over the weekend and getting the insight provided by Fikile Mbalula flattening a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue in Kebble’s home … Mbalula and his ANC Youth League comrades treating the servants with extreme arrogance, trashing the house like spoiled children … it is difficult not to be filled with a sense of loss and longing.
9 18 (oops) years old when I sat with Chris Hani in Lusaka planning how best to drive wedges into Apartheid’s army and win any potential enemies to our side.
I don’t know for sure what he would have thought of this thrust to catapult the “new generation” of leadership into power in 2012 – including, horrifyingly, Fikile Mbalula for Secretary General.
But I suspect he would have drawn the line here. The ANC is not yet in the hands of Mbalula and his cronies – who are so reminiscent of Joe Modise, only slightly more refined.
There have always been heroes in the liberation movement who fought the tendency towards cronyism and rent-seeking abuse. I thought Chris Hani was in the process of becoming one of those when I worked with him in the late 80′s.
Like James Dean and Jesus Christ, Chris Hani’s virtues are frozen as an historical artefact.
There is a part of me that is relieved he will never be tried and found wanting.
(Note: my friend the fabulous artist Isabel Thompson helped organise that conference and my fellow Bruce Springsteen fan and mentor to so many of us Gavin Evans took the pics and posted them on facebook which is where I found them.)