WORLD

BURNING QUESTIONS

WILL THE MURDER OF BLACK LEADER CHRIS HANI SEND SOUTH AFRICA HURTLING TOWARDS A BLOODY RACE WAR?

CHRIS ERASMUS April 26 1993
WORLD

BURNING QUESTIONS

WILL THE MURDER OF BLACK LEADER CHRIS HANI SEND SOUTH AFRICA HURTLING TOWARDS A BLOODY RACE WAR?

CHRIS ERASMUS April 26 1993

BURNING QUESTIONS

WORLD

WILL THE MURDER OF BLACK LEADER CHRIS HANI SEND SOUTH AFRICA HURTLING TOWARDS A BLOODY RACE WAR?

If there was any question what the assassination of black liberation leader Chris Hani would mean to South Africa and its struggle for peace, there could be no clearer answer than the mayhem that engulfed central Cape Town and other major cities last week. In an upheaval unparalleled even in the strife-tom history of South Africa, black youths went on an arson, looting and vandalism rampage on April 14 that shocked the nation to its core.

For a generation of young blacks, Hani, the Shakespeare-quoting secretary general of the South African Communist Party and chief of staff of the African National Congress’s (ANC) armed wing, Spear of the Nation, represented the proud face of righteous rebellion. His violent death at the hands of a white extremist unleashed their growing frustration with the slow pace of political change. As the debris from the rampage was being swept away and the cost—at least 17 dead, hundreds wounded and a bill running into tens of millions of dollars—was toted up, two overriding questions remained. Has the

ANC and its allies in the anti-apartheid movement lost control of the angry and embittered youth? And if so, is there any hope for peace, or is South Africa already toppling over the precipice into all-out race war?

Those were not hypothetical debating points between academics and political pundits; they were burning questions on the lips of ordinary South Africans, black and white, who got caught up last week in what seemed to be a terrifying foretaste of a maelstrom to come. ANC Secretary General Cyril Ramaphosa blamed the riots on small groups of criminals among the 1.5 million mourners who took part in what he said were largely orderly and dignified expressions of the country’s outrage at Hani’s coldblooded murder four days earlier. And he blamed the police for firing on protesters without provocation outside a police station in the black township of Soweto, near Johannesburg, killing four people and wounding nearly 250 others.

But there were disturbing signs that the violence was more than simple opportunism,

notably the jeers that greeted ANC President Nelson Mandela’s appeals for restraint at a dangerously overcrowded memorial rally in Soweto. It was not just that another senior ANC official had been killed. Or even that a white man with known neo-Nazi connections had been arrested for the murder. It was that Hani, 50, was the ANC’s most popular figure after Mandela himself. And because in decades of combat in South Africa’s black liberation struggle, he had earned the respect, admiration and love of the largely alienated youth.

Speaking on national television in the wake of the Cape Town riot, Hani’s close friend and fellow revolutionary, Tokyo Sexwale, warned of more violence to come. He likened Hani’s assassination to the 1914 killing of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand that triggered the First World War: a fuse had been lit and a powder keg was about to detonate. “The government has to realize that there is no more time and that we cannot continue to contain the anger,” declared Sexwale. “We must have

interim rule and joint control over the security forces very soon. We have to deliver something to our people now.”

Sexwale was reflecting the ANC leadership’s line that Hani’s death should not spark a racial war but rather be used to pressure the white-minority government of President F. W. (Frederik) de Klerk to speed up constitutional talks. But, ominously, Sexwale was also admitting that, with Hani gone, there was simply no one left in the predominantly elderly ANC leadership who could keep restive and angry young blacks under control much longer.

It was a message not lost on the government. On April 15, the day after the worst violence, de Klerk’s chief negotiator, Constitutional Minister Roelf Meyer, made an important concession. Pretoria, he said, was prepared to drop its demand that the main elements of a transitional constitution be settled before joint executive control of the government is shared with the black majority. That cleared the path to the early installation—perhaps within a few weeks—of the so-called transitional executive council, the crucial first phase in giving blacks

direct government control. Said Ramaphosa: “We believe that out of this tragedy we can achieve rapid progress and perhaps set an election date even before the end of the year.” De Klerk and other government leaders made it clear that, from their point of view, the chaos and bloodshed had underlined the need for the earliest possible political settlement.

But as South Africans waited anxiously for tangible results from the negotiating table, they also had many unanswered questions about Hani’s murder. During a search of the apartment of their prime suspect, 40-year-old Polish immigrant Janusz Walus, police discovered a hit list of reformist political figures and other luminaries, said to include not only Hani’s name but also those of de Klerk, Mandela, Ramaphosa and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The list raised the possibility that there was much more to Hani’s murder than a lone crazed gunmen’s attack, as police had first indicated.

In fact, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement—one of several far-right fanatical groups that claimed Walus as a member—described the suspect as a “first-class fighter against communism” and declared that Hani’s assassination had been the first shot in a long-feared racial war. The Wit Wolwe (White Wolves), a shawdowy terrorist group that has been blamed for other assassina^ tions of anti-apartheid figures, also attempted to claim Walus as a mem^ ber, and then proceeded to name Joe Slovo, Hani’s predecessor as Communist party leader, as its next target for assassination. Said police spokesman Brig. Frans Malherebe: “We are looking into the possibility that Walus was just the trigger man and that others were also involved in Mr. Hani’s murder.”

In an effort to allay the widespread perception in black townships that the government somehow had a hand in Hani’s murder, de Klerk agreed to involve foreign experts in the criminal investigation. But at the same time, in anticipation of more violence after Hani’s funeral this week, de Klerk also announced that he was putting 3,000 more security personnel on riot duty and thousands more on standby. “We are not going to allow this country to degenerate into chaos,” he said. The ANC denounced the government action, declaring: “Repression can only fuel the passions of our people, who have been so greatly angered by the murder of comrade Chris Hani.” On the long, deathstrewn road to peace, the assassination of one man has presented South Africans with one of their toughest tests yet.

CHRIS ERASMUS