Chris Hani: a life of struggle against Apartheid South Africa

By Bob Newland

Chris grew from lowly beginnings in the Transkei to become a militant of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). He went on to become MK Chief of Staff.  A man of the people, his final role was as General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Thembisile Chris Hani was born in 1942 in a rural village of the former Transkei.  He was the fifth of six children.  His introduction to politics in Apartheid South Africa came at an early age when his father left home in search of work

His initial education was in a Catholic school and his youthful ambition was to join the priesthood in order to help his people.  Disapproving of this, his father moved him to a non- religious school where against all the odds Chris gained the qualifications to go to university.

Hani went to the University of Fort Hare where he was exposed to Marxist ideology.  Graduating from Rhodes University with a degree in Latin and English he changed direction from classical literature to join a law firm.  The extension of the University Education Act (1959) ended the possibility of black students attending white universities.  Chris cut his political teeth in the student campaigns against these measures.

By now the political situation in South Africa had changed dramatically. Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1959 the Apartheid regime had not only banned the Communist Party but also the ANC and African Trades Unions.  Repression against peaceful protest had escalated and the ANC declared the beginning of armed struggle.

MK launched its struggle in December 1961 with a manifesto which declared: ‘The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight.  That time has now come to South Africa.’   Following a raid on MK command headquarters in Liliesleaf farm outside Pretoria, the leadership of MK were given life sentences and those not imprisoned forced into exile.  The ANC’s underground organisation was largely destroyed.

During these years Chris had followed his uncle into the ranks of the SACP and from there to MK.  He soon proved his extraordinary powers of leadership and by 1962 found himself in MK’s Western Cape leadership dubbed the ‘Committee of Seven’.

Continuous engagement in the armed struggle for the liberation of South Africa followed from here.  Arrested in 1962 and facing charges under the Suppression of Communism Act, Chris left the country to attend the ANC Conference in Botswana.  On re-entering South Africa he was again arrested and given an 18 month jail sentence.

While on bail following the lodging of an appeal Hani went back underground on the advice of the ANC leadership.  Four months later he left South Africa illegally for military training in the Soviet Union.

Life was very difficult for MK.  The land borders with the rest of Africa were largely hostile being either British or Portuguese colonies or occupied by South Africa.  An initial attempt for which I was one of the reception party, was made using a ship the Aventura to bring the first cohort of MK fighters into the country from training overseas. This unfortunately failed.  MK took the decision to bring its forces back into the country by land and as a part of this engaged with ZIPRA, the armed wing of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) in a series of battles within Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Chris became a Commissar in the Luthuli Detachment formed jointly between MK and ZIPRA. This was known as the Wankie Campaign but was largely unsuccessful.

Chris escaped to Botswana but was arrested and served two years in prison.  Following his release he went straight back underground and for seven years worked in Lesotho organising units for guerrilla operations within South Africa.  During that time he was elected to the ANC national leadership and became Political Commissar for MK. 

Following the Soweto student uprising in 1976 where thousands of school students went on strike refusing to be taught in Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors, large numbers fled South Africa to join the ranks of MK. This influx threatened to overwhelm the training camps in Angola. Conditions were poor and enormous frustration arose from the amount of time it was taking to complete training and get back into South Africa to carry on the fight.

In 1984 arising from this frustration and the harsh discipline within the camps, a group of MK combatants had mutinied. Chris entered the camp in an unsuccessful attempt to mediate.  Eventually the mutineers were overwhelmed but several people were killed in the process.  The mutineers were sentenced to death under military protocols but Chris demonstrated his enormous humanity by intervening a preventing the executions.  His actions may have also been influenced by his own similar experience many years earlier when he had been a signatory to an appeal to the ANC leadership to escalate the transition of fighters from the camps back into South Africa.

Hani’s charismatic speaking and personal warmth made him a very popular leader. With the commencement of negotiations in 1990 between the ANC and the Apartheid regime he toured the townships rallying support for the ANC and the Communist Party on whose leadership he now served. He became the public face of the Party alongside another giant of the struggle, Joe Slovo.

When Slovo was diagnosed with cancer in 1991, Hani was the obvious figure to take over a General Secretary. Today this dangerous duo and their struggle for the liberation of their people is well remembered as you drive into Soweto township along Joe Slovo Way and pass the Chris Hani Hospital.

Chris gave his all to every moment of his life of struggle. In 1991 he stood down as MK Chief of Staff in order to concentrate on building the SACP during the period leading to the first free elections in 1994.

It is a particular tragedy that having survived several assassination attempts during his underground years, Chris would fall victim to an extreme right-wing racists bullet in April 1993. The assassin, Januzs Walus had conspired with Conservative MP Clive Derby-Lewis and others never identified.  Sadly, despite the objections of Chris’s family and the SACP the South African Constitutional Court ruled in November 2022 that Walus could be released from his life sentence despite his refusal to show any remorse or identify the other conspirators involved.

Every generation throws up a few people who stand head and shoulders above their contemporaries.  Chris Hani was one such person.  His humanity, integrity, and warmth along with his many years of struggle for the SACP and MK to liberate his people make him one of my heroes.  His untimely death at the hands of an assassin robbed the people of South Africa and the world of an outstanding leader. While we are all better from his life and all at a loss from his parting, his example remains to inspire us and future generations.

Bob Newland was a London recruit and Liberation member

This is the second in a series of articles we aim to publish on leading lights – past and presentin anti-imperialist struggles for freedom, peace, social justice and human rights. Who is your Liberation hero? Members and supporters – email us yours, with a few words about the individual and their contribution to . If you are willing and able, we may ask you to write an article on that person’s life.

Image: ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Support Liberation’s work – donate, become a member, affiliate your local organisation’s branch and/or volunteer


Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap