South Africa


Leadership in Question (Part 10): What we can learn from Chris Hani’s qualities

Leadership in Question (Part 10): What we can learn from Chris Hani’s qualities
Chris Hani. (Photo: Reiner Leist)

Chris Hani has a unique place in liberation history, a martyr not dissimilar to Che Guevara, and like Guevara, his qualities tend to be lost in the romantic fervour that attaches to his name. It is important that we clearly identify the qualities of Hani that won him great respect, as we advance models of leadership for people to emulate.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

“We have always lived the ANC in our camps. We have dreamt about the ANC. There was no other life for us except the African National Congress. Let us make it a strong organisation. Let us build our Party because it is the alliance of the ANC and the Party which made the army what it is.” – Extract from an undated speech by Chris Hani addressing an uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) camp in exile, transcribed from a video given to the author by Zeph Makgetla, formerly head of the ANC video unit.

I do not know many people in the ANC or SACP who would speak like this, as Hani did in addressing an MK camp. He often expressed himself passionately and often used words like dream or love (notably when speaking of how he felt about Oliver (OR) Tambo, see below). In his own political practice, Hani resolves what I see as a problem in much left-wing practice – how to combine passion with political understanding, fusing emotional commitment with a set of theories and practices, often described as strategies and tactics.

This rationality/passion binary derives from the ancient Greeks and has long been part of church doctrines and is also a patriarchal male/female binary, with rationality the supposedly superior quality identified with men and passion with women. (See this article)

Invoking heroes and heroines, including Hani, as role models 

I have hesitated to write about Chris Hani, partly because I did not know him all that long, meeting him for the first time in 1990 and working with him in the ANC and SACP until his assassination. I want to convey what I learnt then and subsequently, and to highlight what I see as significant and is in some respects different from that of other leadership figures whom I have met or read about. 

It will be a continuing theme in the political times in which we live for there to be invocations of the lives of past heroes and (to a lesser extent) heroines of the struggle for freedom. This is not new. It was a practice during the liberation struggle when Radio Freedom, the ANC’s radio station, started inside the country with a broadcast by Walter Sisulu from Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia, which was later aired from Lusaka, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Angola and Madagascar. The programme would begin by referring to those who had led resistance in the 19th century. (On Radio Freedom more generally, see for example SP Lekgoathi “The Africa National Congress’s Radio Freedom and its audiences in apartheid South Africa”, 1963-1991, 2010 Journal of African Media Studies, 139-153). 

It was necessary for cadres to understand that their efforts formed part of a long resistance history and struggle for freedom that started before them and would continue after their death.    

Cadres were strengthened by seeing themselves as part of this tradition.  It located freedom fighters within a history that colonialism and apartheid tried to erase and inspired pride. This invocation is part of the literature of the ANC and the SACP and in some of the work of the Unity Movement historians.

That was a period of actual resistance and sacrifice, when many people were preparing or already risking their lives in the cause of freedom. It was important for people to see themselves as part of a longer, broader national and indeed international history, stretching far back.

Another reason for reference to heroic figures is to provide a model of conduct, of service and leadership that others should seek to emulate, to learn qualities that present and later generations needed and still need to try to acquire – then and now.

In South Africa today it is very important for the names of people like Bram Fischer, Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela, Moses Kotane, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Albert Luthuli, Lillian Ngoyi, Dorothy Nyembe, Yusuf Dadoo, Ruth First, Joe Slovo and from other traditions Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Zeph Mothopeng, Jafta (“Bra Jeff”) Masemola, who served a longer term in prison than Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Aubrey Mokoape, Barney Pityana, Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, Saths Cooper, Strini Moodley and others, to be invoked.

Their names carry great authority for they offered their lives for our freedom. And these lives carry often complex meanings if we go behind words like “icon” and try to extract what qualities they represented.

There is some cynicism about the way in which those who do not conduct politics or live in a manner that remotely resembles Hani are appropriating his name, whether in the ANC, SACP of today or the EFF.  But it serves little purpose to attack the hypocrisy of decadent individuals. We should concentrate on learning and popularising what there is in the lives of Hani and others that can be applied to our own work and activities, wherever we are located. By communicating what their lives teach us, we avoid wasting our energy in personalised attacks.

Outwardly Hani conforms to the notion of a romantic military hero, in the mould of Guevara, but like Che, he was much more than a fighter. He also knew, like Mandela as well, that there was a time for fighting and a time for peace. He would never have used militaristic songs and violence in a time of peace and especially not against peaceful protesters.

Early life

Hani was born in Cofimvaba, a small rural town in Transkei in the Sabalele valley near the St Marks Mission. This town is almost 200km from East London. His early life was marked by poverty and only three of his parent’s children survived after infancy.

“My mother is completely illiterate and my father semi-literate. My father was a migrant worker in the mines in the Transvaal, but he subsequently became an unskilled worker in the building industry.

“Life was quite harsh for us and we went through some hard times as our mother had to supplement the family budget through subsistence farming; had to bring us up with very little assistance from my father who was always away working for the white capitalists.” (Interview with Luli Callinicos, 1993. See also Gregory Houston, James Ngculu, (eds), Chris Hani. Voices of Liberation, HSRC Press, 2014). 

He had to walk 20km to school five days a week and then walk the same distance to church every Sunday. Nomboniso Gasa wrote of Sabalele Valley

“KuSabalele. The place’s name is both an exclamation and a resigned answer to the question, ‘How is life there?’ KuSabalele – it is still dry. This is not to be confused with polite conversation about weather. This question is at the heart of how life is on those dry plains and the very dust that shaped Chris Hani.

“It is an unforgiving land that reduced sheep to scratching the raw earth in search of food. The roads were just as hard to navigate. This was, after all, one of the communities that lived on the margins of South African society.” 

Hani’s experience of poverty and personal experience of the consequences of that poverty on people’s health and well-being marked the way he would later communicate the message of the ANC and SACP. Very few could articulate complex strategies as Hani could, drawing as he did on the concrete experiences he knew so well, breaking down their meanings in ways that all could understand, in order to ground the policies that were advocated.

Hani and the church

“At the age of eight, I was already an altar boy in the Catholic church and was quite devout.

“After finishing my primary school education, I had a burning desire to become a priest, but this was vetoed by my father.” (Interview, Callinicos).

In most accounts of Hani’s early life mention is made of his attraction to Catholicism, becoming an altar boy and wanting to become a priest, and this was vetoed by his father. (One writer quotes his mother also opposing this, but not for the same reasons. She did not want him to be a priest because the celibacy rule would mean she would have no grandchildren through him. See Michele Berger, Chris Hani, 1994 pp 3-4).

It tends to be assumed that this attraction to Catholicism was a childhood fad that disappeared especially when he became a communist. But Hani never disavowed his admiration for the Catholic Church of that time and was inspired by it and may have seen it as part of the preparation for becoming a freedom fighter and a communist.

His own words explain a continuing admiration for the role of some of the priests and nuns:

“[The Hani family] was not a Christian family. I grew up in an area where very few people were Christians. In the village, probably three or four people bothered to go to church. It was really a traditional African area where people practised their own religious worship. The influence of Christianity was very minimal. … I went to a Christian church [and], I must say I was under the spell and influence of the priests, the monks and the nuns. And one must say that there is something basically one admired in them. A sense of hard work, selflessness. These people would go on horseback to the most rural parts of the village, taking the gospel to the people, encouraging kids to go to school. Praying for the sick and offering all sorts of advice. In other words, they were not only priests, but they were nurses, they were teachers, they were social workers. I must submit, that had a very, very strong impression on me and in the formation of my character. I thought I wanted to be a priest, but my father didn’t want it, so I had no say in this thing. I branched, and I went to high school.” (Interview with Luli Callinicos, 1993 March. See also Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp, Hani. A life too short. Jonathan Ball. 2009, Houston and Ngculu, Chris Hani).

What is interesting about the words that Hani used to describe the priests and nuns is that these are akin to the qualities often commended to communists. They were often exhorted to undertake sometimes arduous travel and long hours of listening to people in different and difficult parts of the country, to stand by them and hear about their lives and problems and provide whatever assistance could be given. Selflessness and “spreading the word” – what liberation theologists would later call “the option for the poor” wherever it was needed – that was as much a part of the communist conduct Hani would later adopt as it was of the priesthood he admired. So, it would be a mistake to simply write off that attraction to the church as something that disappeared as Hani grew older. This did not blind him to the flaws in the conduct of many church people, just as he came to find flaws in the practice of Communist Party-led states and some of his own comrades.

Hani’s love for Tambo and his understanding of his Christian humanism

And later speaking of Tambo and his Christian faith, Hani more explicitly speaks of kinship between Christianity and communism: 

“We have that love for him. Ask anybody, I think the verdict would be the same. OR was a father to everybody. You know I met OR at the age of 21, I was very young, and my love grew day by day. My love and respect for OR has never wavered. As a communist I would trust OR with my life. Because although he is a Christian, I believe that there is a lot in common between true Christianity and communism. The [love] for humanity, the hatred for suffering and exploitation; and OR embodies all those qualities.” (Callinicos interview).

Interestingly, Dipuo Mvelase, who joined MK as a young woman or a teenager and became a Platoon Commissar, was one of those who used to speculate over who were communists among the leadership. It should be recalled that membership of the SACP was secret, even within the ANC. In an interview conducted with her in 1993, just after Hani’s death she, like Hani, saw Tambo as being a communist or like a communist because of his conduct:

“Q: You’re a Communist – did you relate to Comrade Chris only as a soldier and only recently as a Communist or have you related to him as a Communist for a long time, and how did people view him before this, in regard to his Communism?

“A: Ja, I mean, I knew Comrade Chris as a Communist officially when the Party was unbanned. But if I remember in the camps, I was recruited into the Party in 1984. But in the camps, everybody used to suspect that he was a Communist, not because he used to talk about Communism and quote Marx and Engels. I don’t remember him doing that, anyway. But because of the way he used to relate to all of us, the way he used to relate to soldiers, his general way of life, was associated with Communist, the best of society, the best of human beings and I mean, there used to be these talks, because in the camps they used to be speculating, we used to look at the best cadres and said this one is probably a Communist – and that was the same situation, it was a foregone conclusion, I think, even with OR [Tambo], that this one is a Communist – it’s just that the Party doesn’t want you to know. 

“We’ll know these things when the Party becomes open and exposes, so Comrade Chris and even OR, I mean, OR, even now, people still think he was a Communist. Personally, I also think he was a Communist but probably not an official member of the Party. And my experience with Comrade Chris as a Communist was then, mainly in the country. In exile, I never had any official dealings with him as a Communist, but there was generally the belief in the camp that he was a Communist and ja, because he represented the best of our army, the best of our people. He used to have qualities that were associated with Communists.”

When the SACP was launched as a legal party in 1990, Mvelase says they were not surprised at Hani being a member and although they thought Tambo would also be announced then “people thought, probably for strategic reasons [laughs] he is not on the list.”  (Interview with Dipuo Mvelase, 1993).

Analysis of Chris Hani’s leadership will continue in this series. DM 

Professor Raymond Suttner is completing work as a visiting professor at the Centre for the advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth. Suttner served lengthy periods in prison and under house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.

Previous articles in this series are to be found at:

Leadership in Question (Part One): The leadership we have;

Leadership in Question (Part Two): Emancipatory leadership is needed, especially in a crisis situation;

Leadership in Question (Part Three): Ramaphosa lacks authority and a vision for SA to battle his foes;

Leadership in Question (Part Four): Can the ANC recover and lead a democratic project?;

Leadership in Question (Part Five): In a pandemic, transparency and compassion must be part of democratic stewardship;

Leadership in Question (Part Six): Chief Albert Luthuli, leadership and service; and

Leadership in Question (Part Seven): Albert Luthuli’s leadership comprised multiple, mutually respectful identities; and

Leadership in Question (Part Eight): Luthuli, a Christian chief with integrity, is deposed by the apartheid regime

Leadership in Question (Part Nine): Luthuli, masculinity and gender


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