Maverick Life


An updated edition of ‘Hani: A Life Too Short’ re-evaluates his legacy

An updated edition of ‘Hani: A Life Too Short’ re-evaluates his legacy
'Hani: A Life Too Short' by Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp book cover. Image: Jonathan Ball Publishers

April 10 will mark 30 years since Chris Hani’s murder by right-wing fanatics. Facing starvation, wild elephants and a fleeing enemy, here is an excerpt of Chris Hani’s involvement in the ANC’s first armed military operation.

Chris Hani’s death in 1993 gave rise to one of South Africa’s greatest political questions: if he had survived, what impact would he have had on the ANC government? Drawing on interviews and the recollections of those who knew him, this vividly written book provides a detailed account of the life of a hero of South Africa’s liberation, a man who was both an intellectual and a fighter.

The following excerpt traces Hani’s involvement with the Wankie campaign, the ANC’s first armed military operation, in 1967, so named because it began in the Wankie Game Reserve. 

The ANC’s Luthuli Detachment joined forces with the Zimbabwean African People’s Union (Zapu) and crossed the Zambezi River on 31 July 1967 into Rhodesia. Their mission was twofold: the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto WeSizwe (MK), would embark on a long march home to South Africa, while some MK members would assist Zapu’s military wing, ZPRA, establish a base at Lupane in northeast Rhodesia. 

A number of skirmishes with opposing troops lasted from 13 August to 4 September 1967. Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith eventually invited his South African counterpart, John Vorster, to send South African security reinforcements to Rhodesia to counter the guerrilla forces. Read the excerpt.


MK Wankie campaign

By the time the almost 100-strong contingent was loaded onto trucks under cover of darkness for the 25-kilometre journey to the crossing point, trucks had ferried their equipment to the same point, so it seemed as if preparations had been more than adequate. But once they arrived, it became clear to Hani that there was insufficient weaponry. Marching at the head of the Luthuli Detachment with Tambo and fellow commander Mjojo Mxwaku, Hani told Tambo that this was a serious enough issue to stall the entire campaign. Mjojo backed up Hani’s assertion.

Earlier, the MK commander-in-chief, Joe Modise, had turned down a request from the men for additional ammunition. Now Tambo himself made the request. By the next day, each man had been given an additional magazine, a grenade and 300 rounds of ammunition. The detachment was now armed with an assortment of SKS rifles, AK47s, submachine guns, light machine guns (LMGs), rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), Makarov pistols and small radios. Finally, the mission could get underway.

As the group made their way towards the river, February, fiddling with his rifle, accidentally let off a shot. The men stopped dead and fell silent. Hani investigated the source of the noise, as the report could have carried across the river to patrolling enemy troops. But there was no turning back now. As they approached the riverine escarpment, the echoes of the wild broke the night air. The howl of a jackal, the hollow bark of a hippo. Hearts pumped furiously with excitement. Fear. Anticipation. Far below, the men could hear the sound of rushing water.

The crossing point had been carefully selected, with the thinking being that the enemy would not expect the liberation fighters to cross at such a difficult spot. ‘Lizwe?’ came a call from the darkness. ‘Lolo,’ replied one of the men in the detachment. Emerging from behind a tree was their comrade, Boston Gagarin, a short and stocky man in swimming trunks.

His team would lead them from Point Lolo across the river to Base One.

Hani was the first to climb down. The rope snaking 200 metres down the side of the steep gorge allowed the men to quietly clamber over the rockface, although they occasionally flinched as rocks loosened by those above them hurtled downwards. Moments before Dabengwa reached the bottom, a climber above him slipped, sending a small boulder tumbling down, which knocked the ZIPRA commander unconscious.

At the foot of the rockface, the comrades gathered on the narrow shoreline. The occasional shimmer revealed the 35-metre-wide, fast-moving obstacle before them. On the opposite side of the river, by the sliver of light available, some could discern the figure of Hani. He was already doing exercises.

Moving close to 100 men across on inflatable boats was a tedious business, but the entire contingent finally reached the Rhodesian shore by 5am. Having successfully concluded the first phase of its operation, the Luthuli Detachment saluted its leader, Tambo, still standing, watching and waiting, on the opposite shore.

Thus, 2 August 1967 saw the start of one of the most courageous, if ill-fated, adventures in the history of the ANC. Those who were there remember the unity as night descended again, and the men resting quietly in the shadows of the mopane trees came to life. At the head of the column, Hani set a blistering pace. Marching only in darkness, the soldiers navigated using the stars and their compasses. But trouble struck early.

Their food and water started running out, and the men were soon reduced to one meal a day. Two days into its mission, the detachment was forced to make contact with locals in order to supplement their rations.

After a week, as planned, a smaller combined MK–ZIPRA unit of 21 men broke away and headed towards Lupane in the east. It was planned that this group, led by Andries Motsepe, would establish a northern and central Zimbabwe base for the future infiltration of cadres to the home front. Two weeks after entering Rhodesia, Motsepe and his group made contact with the enemy on the banks of the Nyatuwe River, between Wankie Game Reserve and Dett. The battle raged for 10 hours. Pinned down on the banks of the river, the small group put up a spirited fight, but were no match for the Rhodesian troops.

Far away from the fighting, the main Luthuli contingent listened to the battle on their radios. They had been plagued by setbacks, the most serious of which was when a cadre went missing, and three others were sent to look for him. None rejoined the group. The ever-jovial Hani, however, lived up to his role as commissar, continually encouraging the men under his command and cracking jokes to keep their spirits up. He knew it was only a matter of time before they engaged the Rhodesians. Until then, it was a case of marching at night, sleeping during the day. After almost two weeks, the pace and conditions were gruelling. The men became exhausted. On one of the stops, cadre Lawrence Phokanoka, also known as Peter Tladi, discovered he had left his weapon behind at a camp where the men had rested in the middle of the night. He had to return to find it, and eventually the contingent moved on, leaving him behind. He, too, did not rejoin the detachment and was ultimately arrested.

By now deep inside the reserve and without any contact, Hani’s show of bravado, fiercely marching on with a knapsack that seemed featherlight, began to lose its inspiration. Marching on empty stomachs and critically short of water, the weakened soldiers found themselves stumbling through acacia thorn bushes, which tore at their uniforms and at their flesh. At one point, a contingent – including James April and John Dube – went in search of water.

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Although they used pangas to mark trees along the way, the group soon lost their way in the dense bush. This was the dry season, so there were almost no rivers or streams. Their survey maps, which dated from the 1940s, were hugely inaccurate. April told us of how the sight of water one morning caused utter disbelief. The pan was shining and unbroken, reflecting the sky, and the men were emotional as they approached it.

Being in a game reserve also presented a unique set of challenges.

Hani said he regarded the elephant, lion and giraffe as part of a greater harmony, the way in which he and his men would know if water was safe to drink, or if there were other people in the vicinity. During night-time training sessions, the troops had often encountered game animals and had come to understand their behaviour. At one point, a rogue elephant chased the group, eventually singling out Mjojo Mxwaku, who fortunately managed to escape.

Rhodesian forces had by now picked up the invaders’ trail, and were following close behind. The distance covered by Hani’s detachment was dropping each day. The soldiers were getting weaker. The time to attack was fast approaching.

Despite the hardships, Hani’s view was that so far everything had gone according to plan. By mid-August, however, spotter planes began to track their movements, prompting the detachment to prepare for battle. The men fortified their positions, dug foxholes and organised defence lines, just as they had been taught in training.

The enemy waited. Two weeks later, they struck. Aircraft circled their position early one morning. Trucks packed with soldiers started arriving at about 10am, passing only about 100 metres away. The Luthuli men took up their positions, but there was some concern for two cadres who had gone to fetch water at a dam. When, hours later, the group heard an exchange of fire, Hani realised the two men must have been killed. For a long time afterwards, the air was silent.

Then, at about 3pm, a burst of gunfire was directed at the Luthuli Detachment positions. The Rhodesians shouted for the ‘terrorists’ to surrender, and so the taunting began. Hani’s command insisted that nobody was allowed to pull a trigger before a target was clearly identified. There had to be economy of ammunition. Every bullet was precious. But the silence worried the enemy, and they opened fire. Caught in their first-ever battle, the Luthuli men were terrified as bullets landed at their feet and whizzed past their ears. ‘It was like the chopping of hearts against the ribs,’ said Hani later. The unspoken understanding within the detachment was that there would be no surrender.

The silence had given the Rhodesian troops a false sense of confidence, even arrogance. Standing up from their firing positions, some of their soldiers called out, trying to get a better view of the enemy. Finally, with the RAR clearly in their sights, some cadres opened fire. Two Rhodesians fell, and immediately there was panic in the RAR ranks. Hani led the Luthuli unit as they broke from their positions to pursue the fleeing enemy.

Then, like pirates, the men descended on the supplies left by their attackers. Cheese, biltong, meat, condensed milk and an assortment of other rations were a feast for soldiers who had, for days, teetered on the brink of starvation. Also among the booty was a brand new LMG, new uniforms and boots. In one RAR soldier’s bag, they found an unfinished letter to a girlfriend. DM/ ML

Hani: A Life Too Short by Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers (R310). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts!


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