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Martin Thembisile (Chris) Hani

South African political activist who was assassinated in April 1993

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The assassination of Chris Hani, the charismatic leader of the South African Communist Party, was pivotal in the ending of Apartheid. Why was this man was considered such a threat to both the extreme-right wing in South Africa and the new, moderate leadership of the African National Congress.

Date of birth: 28 June 1942, Comfimvaba, Transkei, South Africa
Date of death: 10 April 1993, Dawn Park, Johannesburg, South Africa

Martin Thembisile (Chris) Hani was born on 28 June 1942 in a small rural town, Comfimvaba, in Transkei, approximately 200 km from East London, the fifth of six children. His father, a semi-literate migrant worker in the Transvaal mines, sent what money he could back to the family in Transkei. His mother, limited by her lack of literacy skills, had to work on a subsistence farm to supplement the family income.

Hani and his siblings walked 25 km to school each week day, and the same distance to church on Sundays. Hani became an altar boy at the age of eight and was a devout Catholic. He wanted to become a priest but his father would not give him permission to enter the seminary.

When the South African government introduced the Black Education Act (1953), which formalised the segregation of black schooling and laid the foundation for 'Bantu Education', Hani became aware of the limitations that the Apartheid system imposed on his future: "[t]his angered and outraged us and paved the way for my involvement in the struggle.".1 In 1956, at the start of the Treason Trial, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) – his father was already an ANC activist – and in 1957 he joined the ANC Youth League. (One of his teachers at school, Simon Makana, may have been significant in this decision – Makana later became the ANC ambassador to Moscow.)

Hani matriculated from Lovedale High School in 1959 and went to university at Fort Hare to study modern and classical literature in English, Greek and Latin. (Hani is said to have identified with the plight of Roman commoners suffering under the control of its nobility.) Fort Hare had a reputation as a liberal campus, and it was here that Hani was exposed to the Marxist philosophy that influenced his future career.

The Extension of University Education Act (1959) had put an end to black students attending white universities (mainly the universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand) and created separate tertiary institutions for whites, Coloured, blacks, and Asians. Hani was active in campus protests over the takeover of Fort Hare by the Department of Bantu Education. He graduated in 1961 with a BA in Classics and English, just ahead of being expelled for political activism.

Hani's uncle had been active in the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), an organisation founded in 1921 but which had dissolved itself in response to the Suppression of Communism Act (1950). Ex-Communist Party members had to operate in secret, and had re-formed themselves as the underground South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1953.

In 1961, after a move to Cape Town, Hani joined the SACP. The following year he joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the militant wing of the ANC. With his high level of education, he quickly rose through the ranks; within months he was a member of the leadership cadre, the Committee of Seven. In 1962 Hani was arrested for the first of several times under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1963, having tried and exhausted all the possible legal appeals against conviction, he followed his father into exile in Lesotho, a small country landlocked within South Africa.

1. From My Life, a short autobiography written by Chris Hani in 1991.

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