Nelson Mandela Foundation

An Easter weekend break in South Africa’s talks to end white minority rule was shattered by the news that Thembisile Chris Hani had been murdered – shot down at point-blank range outside his home, in front of his 15-year-old daughter Nomakhwezi.

The country was shaken to its core. The hugely popular South African Communist Party leader, who had also commanded the African National Congress’ army, Umkhonto weSizwe, was no more.

It was not the first time that brutal acts of violence had rocked the negotiations at Johannesburg’s World Trade Centre. They broke up in June 1992 when 45 people were killed in what became known as the Boipatong Massacre and did not resume until after the Bisho Massacre on 7 September that year. In that case 29 people died and more than 200 were injured when Ciskei soldiers opened fire on protesters calling for democratic reforms. Led by Chris Hani, Cyril Ramaphosa, Steve Tshwete and Ronnie Kasrils, around 80 000 people attempted to cross Ciskei Defence Force lines from Transkei to enter Bisho when the shooting started.

Would South Africa’s fragile project to achieve democracy survive the killing of Chris Hani?

As news spread of his passing, the civil war that the talks had helped to avoid came pounding on our door. Nelson Mandela stepped forward. Just three years out of prison, the leader of the African National Congress’ negotiating team at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) took action.

“We had to do something to channel away that anger,” he said at the time. “Chris Hani was a hero amongst our people, especially to the youth, and there was anger at his death.”

Mandela had earlier condemned the Boipatong and Bisho massacres and pleaded: “No power on this earth can destroy the thirst for human dignity. Our land cries out for peace. We will only achieve it through adherence to democratic principles and respect for the rights of all. This is the challenge that faces all South Africans.” And his warning, “We dare not fail.”

But it was different this time, more urgent. Some people say that it was on that Saturday, 10 April 1993, that Mandela became the de facto president of South Africa. He was in the Transkei when he heard the devastating report, and as soon as it could be arranged he flew the 30 minutes by helicopter from his home in Qunu to pay his respects to Hani’s elderly parents, Nomayise and Gilbert, in the village of Sabalele in the district of Cofimvaba.

By the time Mandela reached Johannesburg later that day the police had arrested the assassin, Polish national Janusz Walus, thanks to vital information supplied by Hani’s white neighbour, Retha Harmse. And before Hani was buried, Walus’ accomplice, Conservative Party MP Clive Derby-Lewis, was also in custody.

Mandela was whisked to the headquarters of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, a sprawling edifice until then synonymous with the voices of successive apartheid leaders.

After settling onto a plush executive chair, Mandela looked straight into a studio camera and spoke calmly. “Today, an unforgivable crime has been committed.” All around the country anguished protests were threatening to flare up and still Mandela kept his composure. “The calculated, cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani is not just a crime against a dearly beloved son of our soil. It is a crime against all the people of our country.”

This was the moment that Mandela stamped on the country his moral authority, his leadership of a South Africa threatening to detonate with rage. He called for every religious institution to commemorate Hani’s values and his life, and for that Wednesday to be a day of memorial services.

He recognised that people needed to “find expression for their anger”, he recounted. “If we had not done so, the right-wing and these sinister elements would have succeeded in drawing the country to a racist war and incalculable loss of human lives and bloodshed.”

Three days later Mandela again adopted the mantle of a sitting president, and from behind an SABC television microphone attempted to calm the nation’s erupting fury.

He began as steadily as in his first televised address, but this time his words were profoundly urgent: “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being.

Acknowledging Hani’s “cold-blooded murder” as a “national tragedy”, he urged his grief-stricken compatriots to exercise discipline and restraint and to use memorial services throughout the country “to pay homage to one of the greatest revolutionaries this country has ever known”.

Revealing not a hint of his own feelings, his face betraying nothing, he reminded South Africans: “A white woman of Afrikaner origin risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin.”

At Hani’s funeral, nine days after he breathed his last, Mandela slammed the apartheid regime as “illegitimate, unrepresentative, corrupt and unfit to govern”.

“We want peace, but we are not pacifists. We are all militants. We are all radicals,” he cautioned. “That is the very essence of the ANC, for it is a liberation movement fighting for freedom for all our people.”

Drawing attention back to the stalled talks, he stressed that it was the efforts of South Africans “in the prisons, in mass campaigns, through the armed struggle that has brought the regime to the negotiating table”.

The best way to honour Chris Hani, he said, was to ensure a date was set for elections. And soon. “Speed is of the essence. We want an end to white minority rule now. We want an election date now. We want to know when we will have a government of our choice.”

Later in April 1993 the multiparty talks resumed, and by 1 June it was agreed that the date all South Africans could cast their ballots in the country’s first democratic elections would be 27 April 1994. And in the early hours of 18 November 1993, negotiators approved South Africa’s new Interim Constitution.