Today marks the 26th anniversary of the brutal assassination of Thembisile Chris Hani, the former leader of the South African Communist Party and Umkhonto weSizwe, the armed-wing of the African National Congress. On this day in 1993, our country was nearly plunged into a civil war when a far-right anti-communist immigrant, Janusz Walus, shot the beloved leader in the head and back. The image of Hani laying in a pool of his own blood will haunt our collective memory forever. But more than this, it is the ideas for which Hani fought and died that we must never forget; and when we think of Hani, it is these that must be at the forefront of our collective memory.
I was barely 3 years old when Hani was killed, and though his was a life too short, it was a life that inspired my political consciousness and shaped my moral stance on the question of social justice in a South Africa that is yet to become the kind of society that Hani was committed to pursuing. Hani’s moral courage was demonstrated in many ways, and though some have nefariously characterised him as a mutineer, he was in fact, a man who loved the Congress Movement so much that he criticised it without fear in order that it could become a truly revolutionary weapon in the hands of the people.
In 1969, Hani and some comrades from the MK penned what would be known as the Hani Memorandum, a document so explosive in its criticism of the leadership of the ANC in exile that it resulted in his suspension from the ANC and the MK. Because of this suspension, Hani would be unable to attend the watershed Morogoro Conference in Tanzania. And although Hani and the suspended comrades would later be reinstated, the significance of the Hani Memorandum cannot be understated.
The Hani Memorandum began with these poignant words: “We, as genuine revolutionaries, are moved by the frightening depths reached by the rot in the ANC…”. It went on to detail how the rot manifested itself. Among the things that Hani listed include the social distance of the ANC leadership from the masses of the people in the country, the disintegration of the MK, and perhaps most importantly, the conduct of ANC leaders in exile. Hani spared no criticism for these leaders, arguing that they had become careerists – “professional politicians rather than professional revolutionaries”.
Hani lamented the fact that senior leaders of the ANC were becoming too consumed with money and were opening businesses in exile that were for commercial purposes rather than for funding the liberation struggle. He characterised these developments as a clear demonstration that comrades were being “built up as a middle class in our revolutionary organisation and in the MK”.
Hani’s contempt for this betrayal of the poor working-class people back home who were on the receiving end of the brutality meted on them by the apartheid regime was palpable. In every interview that one watches of Hani, he laments this calamitous flirtation with money – this move by comrades towards a life of crass materialism and social distance from the people. It is perhaps apt that today, as we commemorate Hani, we also reflect on the state of the Mass Democratic Movement and ask ourselves whether Hani’s concerns had any legitimate basis.
The ANC remains deeply loved by millions of South Africans, who see it as the vehicle that will provide a better life for all. As we approach the general elections scheduled for the 8th of May 2019, there is clear evidence, based on probability, that the organisation will reclaim its majority support. But excitement over this must not blind us to the reality that the organisation, and indeed the congress movement, is bleeding.
The ANC has always drawn its strength from its moral authority. Even at its weakest, the organisation drew its strength from the support it enjoyed both inside and outside the country – support rooted in its moral strength on the issue of apartheid and other matters related to the pursuit of social justice. Over time, this morality has been eroded by ceaseless scandals of its leaders and its conduct in government, where it has flirted with corruption, maladministration and the misappropriation of state funds. This has not only affected its ability to deliver services to the people but eroded the moral authority that men like Hani died committed to.
Perhaps just as catastrophic as this has been the retreat from the habit of self-reflection that the organisation was at some point committed to. The decision by the ANC leadership at the Morogoro Conference in 1969 to reinstate Hani and the signatories of the Hani Memorandum was the result of self-reflection and self-criticism, which are important for organisations that seek to bring about meaningful change in society.
But we are witnessing an erosion of this culture, which is being replaced by what former president Thabo Mbeki referred to as a “calamitous retreat from the habit of thinking”. This is expressed in the violent opposition to differing views, which are seen not as a result of our democratic tradition, but as dissent. This alien tendency of viewing difference as dissent needs to be arrested if the ANC is to maintain its intellectual and moral legitimacy.
On this occasion of Hani’s commemoration, we must revisit his ideas and ask ourselves whether as a movement we are doing justice to his legacy. We must ask ourselves whether this congress movement is worth Hani’s ultimate sacrifice. More importantly, we must ask ourselves whether 25 years into democracy, we are inching closer towards a national democratic society or if we have begun our descent into chaos.
Kgabo Morifi is a PhD candidate at the Tshwane University of Technology and the Tshwane District Secretary of the Young Communist League.