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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

An assassination that nearly sparked civil war

Posted Wed, 09 Apr 2003

On Easter Saturday 10 years ago, four shots rang out in a quiet suburb east of Johannesburg, killing one of anti-apartheid South Africa's most popular heroes and bringing the country to the brink of civil war.

Martin Thembisile "Chris" Hani (41), former chief of staff of the African National Congress' (ANC) armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and Communist Party secretary general, lay dead in his driveway.

Within 15 minutes of the assassination, police arrested Janusz Walus, a young Polish immigrant with right-wing connections. Hani's blood still stained his shirt, and in Walus's red sedan car, police found the murder weapon.

A short while later, police arrested Conservative Party MP Clive Derby-Lewis, another right-winger, and also implicated him in Hani's death. Both men were found guilty, and are currently serving life sentences.

Hani's death rocked South Africa, then in the process of transforming into a multi-racial democracy.

A call for calm

As fears of an all-out race war spread with the news of Hani's assassination, the ANC, South Africa's ruling-party-in-waiting, had to move fast to calm calls for revenge.

The same night, Nelson Mandela, ANC president at the time, appeared on national television calling for an end to the violence.

"The country was fragile," Mandela recalls in his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom".

"There were concerns that Hani's death might trigger a racial war, with the youth deciding that their hero should become a martyr for whom they would lay down their own lives," the elderly statesman remembered.

Mandela told the nation: "An unforgiveable crime has been committed."

But he also called for calm during a hastily put-together televised address: "This killing must stop. We are a nation in mourning... yet, we must not permit ourselves to be provoked by those who seek to deny the freedoms that Chris Hani gave his life for."

Violence claims 70 lives

A few days later, thousands of protesters marched in cities and in townships around the country to commemorate Hani. In Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Pietermaritzburg angry youths went on the rampage.

In Umtata enraged mobs attacked the South African embassy, badly damaging it.

More than 70 people lost their lives in the violence, but without ANC intervention, many more would have died.

Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who also worked non-stop to calm tempers, described the time after Hani's death as "one of the most scary moments in our country's history."

"If we didn't go up in flames then, I don't think we'll ever go up in flames at any other time. It was the worst moment in my life, and for many of us," he told AFP in an interview.

"I loved him very deeply. He was a very positive influence on the young."

Pallo Jordan, a former minister under Mandela, now chairperson of parliament's foreign affairs committee, also remembers the moment he learnt of Hani's death.

"It was like the sky had come down," he told AFP. "The country was on a knife's-edge.

"Had the ANC leadership not intervened, we might have very well had an explosion of anger."

Fighting for a democratic South Africa

The killing of Hani ended an extraordinary career in the fight for a democratic South Africa.

Born in the small rural town of Cofimvaba, in the Transkei, Hani joined the ANC's armed wing in 1962 and later that year was arrested by the apartheid regime and sentenced to 18 years in jail.

When an appeal against his conviction failed, he fled to the Soviet Union to undergo military training. In 1973 he slipped back into South Africa to establish a political infrastructure for the ANC in the Cape province.

He moved to Lesotho in 1981, and later to Zambia, where he took over command of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1987.

Despite being a tough soldier and committed socialist, Hani also preached peace, especially among the younger and more radical elements of the ANC.

Hani's death "not in vain"

Ten years on, Jordan said he still believed Hani's death was not in vain.

"The assassination helped to concentrate the minds of the (white) government of the day. That only the ANC leadership could calm the situation, showed the (Frederik) De Klerk government that they needed to move the process forward with deliberate speed."

AFP

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.