South Africa

Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, 20 years on: What would they say?

By Ranjeni Munusamy 5 April 2013

Earlier in the week, the ANC accused the media of “pissing on the graves” of South African soldiers who were killed in the Central African Republic by exposing business interests of the politically connected in that country. On Thursday, ANC MPs defiled not only the graves of these very soldiers, but those of the liberation heroes too, by making a mockery of the Parliament they fought so hard to be represented in. They showed utter contempt for those who died in Bangui, for reasons yet unknown, and for the people of South Africa they claim to represent, for the reasons well-known by now. The ANC, once a glorious organisation under the leadership of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, has never looked so disgraceful. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Next week marks the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Chris Hani, the former general secretary of the South African Communist Party. Hani was chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, a position in which he served with the kind of passion and dedication that made him a legend and cult-like figure in the liberation movement. He was one of the ANC’s bravest soldiers, its last action hero.

But Hani’s intense passion as a military man also courted controversy in the ANC and earned him notoriety, not often spoken about after his death. In the mid 1960s, a large number of MK cadres became frustrated at their immobility in ANC camps while the Apartheid government was wreaking havoc inside South Africa. This led to the ill-fated Wankie and Sipolilo incursions, which resulted in many MK combatants dying or being captured and imprisoned by enemy forces. Hani, part of the Luthuli Detachment of combined ANC and Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) forces, eventually escaped into Botswana, but was arrested there and imprisoned for two years for possession of weapons.

His imprisonment left him critical of the ANC leadership and its failure to assist him while he was in prison. Together with other MK members, Hani drafted a scathing memorandum about the ANC leadership’s incompetence and for living in luxury in exile. Most notably, the Hani Memorandum (as it is became known) was heavily critical of the leadership’s failure to recognise and give attention to the soldiers who participated in the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns. He drew a contrast between the tough conditions of the soldiers in the MK camps and the comforts of the political leaders in exile.

The ANC’s then president and supreme commander of MK, Oliver Tambo, was extremely disturbed by the memorandum, realising what damage the negative sentiment could do to the ANC if it caught on. He therefore convened numerous consultative meetings to address the discontent. The Hani Memorandum provided the backdrop for the ANC’s Morogoro Conference in 1969 which became a moment of reflection for the organisation. It was a watershed conference, resulting in changes to the political and military structures of the ANC.

The ANC and SACP will spend the next week commemorating the life and times of Chris Hani, and as they usually do, will try and deduce how their former leader will perceive the current context. They will talk about how Hani would be proud of the ANC government’s achievements and disapprove of poverty and inequality in South Africa – as if it is other people’s responsibility to address these.

It remains to be seen whether in their tributes, the organisations in the alliance will refer at all to South Africa’s failed expedition to the Central African Republic (CAR) and try to infer what Hani would make of the deaths of 13 South African National Defence Force members. Those who knew Hani or studied his life would know that he cared deeply about the welfare of his soldiers and would be unforgiving of any carelessness that led to their deaths.

If Hani was scathing of the ANC leadership wallowing in luxury in exile and neglecting their soldiers, what would he make of the plundering and abuse of the state now for personal benefit and the deployment of soldiers to a foreign country for dubious intentions? Moreover, what would Hani make of the shameful behaviour of MPs representing his beloved ANC, watching the clock so they can start their weekends early, completely impervious to the lives lost, supposedly in defence of national interests?

On Thursday, Parliament’s joint standing committee on defence held a special meeting to discuss the deployment of the SANDF to the CAR, which would finally allow some of the burning questions on the matter to be answered by  Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

The members of the committee, representing all the parties in Parliament, were there on behalf of the voting public to ask all the questions ordinary South African citizens themselves cannot ask of the minister and SANDF chiefs. The proceedings were broadcast on television and closely followed on social media as this was the first time since the fire fight in the CAR on 23 March that government would account publicly for the deployment of troops as well as the events that led to the 13 deaths.

It turned out to be, not surprisingly, a charade and a fiasco.

Mapisa-Nqakula bumbled her way through the briefing, admitting at one stage: “I’m still wondering how we lost it there, what happened”.

She also effectively conceded several times the failure of military and foreign intelligence: “We were not equipped in a way that will be able to repel that kind of battle. We never deployed to the CAR to wage a battle. We never anticipated (a battle)…

“I think that is what we did not anticipate, that the kind of rebel you would end up protecting yourself from is the kind of rebel which will come in heavy vehicles and will have high-calibre machinery.”

It is hardly comforting to thousands of families around the country whose relatives serve in the SANDF and whose lives are all at risk in foreign missions, that South Africa’s intelligence capacity is so feeble. It also cannot give any South African confidence that the defence minister, with the military command at her disposal, cannot figure out two weeks after the fact, exactly “what happened”.

But that was not even the most shocking part of the meeting. Committee chairman Jerome Maake seemed to be under strict instructions to make sure that the minister did not come under any severe pressure from the opposition parties and to block any significant probing. The meeting thus degenerated into a clash of points of order between the ANC and opposition MPs and constant bickering.

After two hours, Maake seemed intent on adjourning the meeting, while opposition MPs argued that on such a matter of national importance, there should be no time restrictions on the debate. But with no firm answers on how and why the South African soldiers were killed, or whether President Jacob Zuma was justified in authorising the mission, ANC MPs wanted the meeting dispensed with, one of them indicating he had a flight to catch.

Democratic Alliance MP and defence spokesman David Maynier was threatened with sanction and asked to apologise for saying he wanted answers as to whether Zuma misled Parliament about the purpose and costs of the deployment. At 15:00 exactly, three hours after the meeting started, Maake adjourned it with none of the substantive questions answered.

The ANC MPs were probably patted on their backs for having stymied the meeting from delving too deep into the CAR expedition and embarrassing the president and the minister. They seemed not to be concerned about negative perceptions even within the SANDF that those deployed to the CAR were let down by the South African government which sent their colleagues to their deaths by not providing them with the support and equipment to protect themselves.

It seemed not to occur to a single person representing the ANC that negative sentiment against the president and government within the army is a recipe for disaster. To them, the lives of the 13 soldiers were expendable and secondary to protecting the interests of the political elite.

The grand irony is that these MPs will join the commemorations of Chris Hani’s life in the next week, probably oblivious to the fact that the issues he raised in that notable memorandum are remarkably similar to the conditions the South African troops were confronted with in the CAR – abandoned in a hostile situation, left to fight for themselves and dishonoured in death. Even 20 years after his death, Hani is still able to speak for soldiers like him – although no one in his organisation is listening anymore.

What would Tambo – who also died 20 years ago this month – and Hani think of the current custodians of their organisation? What would they think of MPs waiting to be dismissed at 15:00 on a Thursday to catch flights home? What would they say about South African soldiers fighting in an inexplicable war and dying for unknown reasons? What would they say to  Mapisa-Nqakula and other ANC ministers who have no clue of how to do their jobs and are unable carry out their responsibilities?

And what would Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani say to Jacob Zuma, the man now in charge of the ANC they gave up their lives for? What would they say about the excess of Nkandla, about the horror of Marikana and about the shame of defeat in Bangui? 

They would remember the country they left for Mandela to bring to freedom. They would remember the tough times, but also the hopeful times. The times when the bright-eyed idealists went to work for the people, and for the country to have a future. They would remember the global diaspora coming back to the home they thought they would never see again, the people so eager to contribute that they considered sleep a waste of time.

More than anything, they would remember how they ignited hope, a feeling that tens of millions suddenly had, that tomorrow is definitely going to be better than today, but still worse than the day that would come after tomorrow.

And then they would look at today’s unlucky tens of millions who have never tasted the fruits of BEE, who wake up every morning hopeless. Hopeless, because today’s custodians of the three magical letters have better and more important things to do than serve those who vested, and wasted, their hopes in them. They have disconnected themselves from the masses, hidden behind luxuries and protection, serving only their own interests in the country whose every day is worse than yesterday. And while they will still claim it, in reality, they have betrayed Tambo and Hani’s dream of a better country, where those in power are wise and selfless, where government is the place where the best of us gather to serve the entire citizenry.

South Africa of today is not the country Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani dreamed of; lest we forget it next week, when the chest beating starts. DM

Photo: Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo (Reuters)

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