Chris Hani and the Ideals of Communism

Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

The 31st anniversary of Chris Hani’s assassination was marked on 10 April.

Born Martin Thembisile Hani, he was the leader of the South African Communist Party and chief of staff of uMkonto we Sizwe (MK), the then armed wing of the ANC.

In 1993, Hani was assassinated by Janusz Walus, a far-right, anti-communist Polish immigrant, during South Africa’s transition to democratic rule.

Serious tensions followed the assassination, sparking fears that violence would derail the country’s democratic process.

Nelson Mandela addressed the nation to appeal for calm, and his outstanding leadership qualities saved the day. The country pulled back from the brink.


Hani (28 June 1942 – 10 April 1993) joined the ANC Youth League at the tender age of 15 and was active in student politics.

After graduating from Rhodes University (1962), he joined MK. He was later arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act and subsequently went into exile in Lesotho in 1963.

From there, he organised MK guerrilla operations into South Africa. It was during this period that he adopted the name Chris as his nom de guerre (combat name). He eventually moved to the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.

Hani received military training in the Soviet Union and served in military campaigns in Zimbabwe’s liberation war.

These involved joint operations between MK and the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (Zipra) in the late 1960s.

Hani’s role as a fearless fighter propelled him into the position of MK’s deputy commander under Joe Modise.

He returned to South Africa after the ANC was unbanned in 1990, and took over from the ailing Joe Slovo as head of the South African Communist Party (SACP) on 8 December 1991.

By that time, he had become prominent enough to have become the target of assassination attempts.


Why did communist ideals appeal to young radicals like Chris Hani and others, both in South Africa and Namibia?

It was clear that apartheid oppression in both countries was part of a bigger problem.

That problem was exploitative capitalist production relations underpinned by an apartheid state that made cheap black labour readily available to white monopoly capital.

This enabled the capitalists to make massive profits.

A socialist revolution was regarded as the only alternative to the white settler capitalist state that “hid behind apartheid”.

That was why communism’s promises of an egalitarian society appealed to so many of us.

During the Cold War era, socialist countries actively supported liberation movements in southern Africa.

The rank and file of these movements were also exposed to the communist ideology as some of them went to these countries for military training, while others went there for university studies.


However, by the time Namibia gained independence in 1990 and South Africa transited to democratic rule in 1994, there had been a re-configuration of the global system.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and other socialist states in eastern and central Europe in the 1990s, socialism, as an international project, was forced onto the back foot.

Unlike the Cold War period which was characterised by superpower rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union in a bipolarised international system – pitching multiparty democracy and capitalism on the one hand, against socialism and one-party rule on the other – by the mid-nineties, the world was completely different.

Multi-party democracy and neo-liberal economic policies had gained international currency as the two core sets of norms underpinning what has come to be known as the good governance paradigm.  


What then went wrong with the socialist project in eastern and central Europe?   

  • • What was supposed to be the dictatorship of the proletariat (working class) became the dictatorship of the Communist Party;
  • • The Communist Party was the only party that was allowed and it became a monster unto itself, alienated from the working class and other strata in society;  
  • • No free trade unions were allowed; trade unions needed to be affiliated to the Communist Party;
  • • All print and electronic media were controlled by the state;
  • • This led to the suffocation of a free competition of ideas;
  • • At the economic level, the means of production were owned and run by the state, leading to inefficiency as the state had a monopoly and there was no competition; and
  • • Socialist states that were culturally heterogeneous never managed to resolve the National Question (in socialist thought, the National • Question deals with the right of nationalities and/or ethnic groups to determine their own destiny within a nation-state where they live).  

Without the free competition of ideas, the cumulative effect was that the political system hit a bottleneck and something had to give. And it did: The system collapsed.

In my book, external pressure from the capitalist West on these countries only constituted secondary contradictions.

The internal contradictions were primary and thus the main cause of the collapse.  

  • * Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna is a commissioner of elections. However, the views expressed here are his own and not those of the ECN.

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