HIS murderers have long been jailed, but the exact motivation and the broader ramifications, such as the possibility of an inside job, remain elusive. Martin Tembisile Hani (better known as Chris, his younger brother’s name) was assassinated outside his house in Boksburg on 10 April 1993 at the age of 50. The murder, apparently a right-wing conspiracy, happened at a particularly dangerous moment in the fraught and fragile transition to democracy. In the words of Stephen Ellis, South Africa came ‘perilously close to a deep canyon of violence’. And Hani remains a significant, but enigmatic figure: a martyr to the cause of liberation who did not live long enough to be tested by political power. Had he lived, would South African politics have adopted a different itinerary?

His was a familiar southern African story: altar boy radicalised by injustice and racism who became a communist and freedom fighter. But there was about him something different that evoked the idea of the intellectual soldier, a well-educated man of the people who had attended Lovedale and graduated from the University of Fort Hare in classical and legal studies, a seeker of socio-economic justice committed to non-racialism, and seemingly uninterested in personal power. There is evidence that before his murder, Hani was concerned about a peace that he saw threatened by the criminal potential of township self-defence units being set up under Operation Vula, and the threat of general lawlessness. Some commentators argue that like Joe Slovo he had jettisoned the outmoded idea of a vanguard communist party and was considering the benefits of social democracy.

Hani had a troubled relationship with the ANC. As political commissar of the Luthuli Detachment in the strategically doomed and poorly planned, but undoubtedly heroic, Wankie campaign of 1967 he was one of the survivors who ended up in a Botswana jail. Appalled by the dismissive attitude of the leadership of the ANC to an operation that had produced a 50% casualty rate, he wrote a damning indictment of an organisation that appeared to be ignoring the rank and file in the interests of image. The memorandum of 1969 denounced fossilised and incompetent leaders out of touch with conditions in South Africa, the careerism, nepotism and opportunism of many of them, shady business operations, criminality and ill-discipline. Life for some in exile, Hani argued, was profitable and the memo named Joe Modise and Duma Nokwe. His accusation that the security apparatus, NAT, was primarily designed to suppress internal dissent, rather than deal with external threat, was endorsed by the fact that the memo was labelled treason.

It was a prophetic view and remarkable for its relevance 40 years later. For its time, it was so accurate that Hani was lucky to escape a firing squad. Oliver Tambo and the national executive committee were able to override the ANC’s neurotically vicious security mechanism, but Hani was expelled from the movement for a while. However, by 1974 he was running operations from Lesotho (where his father Gilbert had fled into exile to escape banishment) with such success that he became a prime target for the apartheid regime and at least one special branch hit, in which the assassin blew himself up. In spite of this, in the guise of Sotho farmer or businessperson he moved in and out of South Africa, in particular linking up with the growing trade union movement.

In the eighties he was Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) political commissar and involved in the questionable campaign against UNITA that led to the Viana mutiny. He met the dissidents at Kangadala and was well-aware of their January 1984 demands for the suspension of NAT activity, an investigation into Quatro, and a meeting with president-general Tambo in the context of general grievances about poor and often corrupt leadership insufficiently committed to the armed struggle. These clearly echoed his own anger after the Wankie campaign, yet there are unanswered questions about Hani’s subsequent inaction, particularly during the atrocities.

And a few years later this man of great political intelligence became close to an already disgraced Winnie Mandela, perhaps unsurprisingly since he had threatened to turn South Africa into a wasteland. In 1989, with Modise and Slovo he defended Thami Zulu, commander of MK’s Natal operations, who died of diazinon poisoning not long after release from ANC detention. Whether this concern went deeper than the split between MK’s operational arm and the hated intelligence and security establishment is debatable.

So, perhaps inevitably, two decades after his death we are left with a paradox. In the eyes of many who knew him he was a potential state president, the warrior with a book of poetry in his backpack revered by the MK rank and file. At the time of the Mangaung elective conference, he would have been 70 years old. And in spite of the unanswered questions, historically he represented mainline MK thinking bitterly opposed to the security mechanism that presents a continuing threat to our democratic rights to this day. And the most prominent representative of that security tradition is none other than President Jacob Zuma.

This article was first published in the Witness on 10 April 2013 and entitled ‘Hani: what would he be saying today?’

Further reading: Janet Smith and Bureauregard Tromp, Hani: A Life Too Short: A Biography (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2009).