South Africa – Remembering South African struggle hero Chris Hani: lessons for today

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This article first appeared on The Conversation

The “what if” game is popular with the media and the commentariat in South Africa. A popular example is “what if …” South African Communist Party (SACP) leader Chris Hani were still alive.

What, for example, would he say about the SACP’s tripartate alliance partner, the African National Congress? What would he say about the state of the alliance after recent calls by both partners, the SACP and union federation Cosatu for President Jacob Zuma to step down?

These questions are being asked again on the anniversary of Hani’s assassination on April 10, 1992 by two rightwing extremists.

But such use, often by the liberal media, of Hani’s name (and those of other fallen cadres of the liberation movement) is problematic. It seeks to isolate Hani from the movement that produced him, presenting him as an exception it can then appropriate.

Hani’s name is also regularly invoked by the SACP and the ANC come election time. Many campaign posters call on supporters to “Do it for Chris Hani”. Here, the summoning of Hani’s memory has become little more than empty rhetoric.

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A more useful exercise may be to reflect on Hani’s life, actions and beliefs, and their significance for today.

A popular hero

In his book “A Jacana Pocket Biography: Chris Hani” historian Hugh Macmillan argues it was Hani’s physical and moral bravery, his compassion and humanity that made him a “popular hero” – the words used by French philosopher Jacques Derrida to describe Hani in his Spectres of Marx lecture.

Hani helped build a culture of internal criticism in the ANC. In 1969 he and six other commissars and commanders of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing, signed what became known as the “Hani memorandum”. The memorandum outlined the “frightening depth of the rot in the ANC”, accusing its leadership of careerism, corruption and persecution by the party’s security.

Hani’s memorandum was the catalyst for one of the most significant events in the history of the ANC in exile, a conference in Morogoro, Tanzania. But it was viewed as treacherous by some within the leadership, particularly those it had criticised. Hani and his comrades were expelled from the ANC and only reinstated after the Morogoro conference.

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Russian scholar Vladimir Shubin has argued that it was largely thanks to the memorandum that the delegates to the conference included rank and file MK members and not just the leadership.

The Morogoro conference opened ANC membership to non-Africans. It also adopted the important “Strategy and Tactics” document. This provided – for the first time since the ANC’s banning in 1960 – a systematic assessment of the conditions of struggle and an overall vision for defeating apartheid in a time of deep political demoralisation.

The conference was a moment of self-reflection. It helped the ANC to overcome the state of crisis and demoralisation that had set in.

The ability of the leadership of both the ANC and its closest ally, the SACP, to reassess circumstances, interrogate these and themselves, and learn from past mistakes to overcome difficult moments is one of the most important lessons from their history. This tradition of internal debate has become eroded, and criticism keeps being silenced as sowing disunity.

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Disrupting notions of masculinity

A famous quote by Che Guevara states that “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love”. Leaders like Hani were moved to act by their hearts as well as by reason. The decision to join the liberation struggle was one of reason – a conscious rejection of apartheid oppression and inequality. But it was also a choice informed by “revolutionary love” or a “love for the people” – shaped by a sense of justice and by compassion, as well as by a vision, the ability to imagine a different future.

As struggle veteran and public intellectual Raymond Suttner points out in Recovering Democracy in South Africa, what is new and alarming about many of the ANC’s

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