Comment and Analysis

A culture of service and tolerance: Lessons from Chris Hani

Jay Naidoo

After twenty years, what have we learnt from the ultimate sacrifice Chris Hani made, asks Jay Naidoo.

Chris Hani. (Gallo)

Twenty years on and it is sometimes convenient, or simply too easy, to forget the abyss of civil war from which our leaders drew us back and to speculate on what might have been had the ANC taken a harder line in the negotiation process that led to South Africa’s first democratic elections . We sometimes need reminding that the liberation movement achieved a “political miracle”. And we need to remind ourselves of the values held dear by Chris Hani, who represented the best of our patriots in wanting a meaningful democratic outcome for our people.

Twenty years have passed. What have we learnt from the ultimate sacrifice that Chris Hani made on that fateful day? I am reminded of a profound quote from a non-governmental organisation I support, which says, “In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it."

The turbulent 80s, the era of our people’s defiance, saw the rise of the mass democratic movement led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) and spearheaded by the ANC. The apartheid regime was in a structural crisis faced with a deepening economic catastrophe and a global illegitimacy which forced a political stalemate in our country. Something had to give. The alternative was a scorched earth and a racial civil war.

These were momentous times. It needed leaders of courage on both sides to rise above the conflict and see a path to a political settlement. But the release of Mandela and all political prisoners, the unbanning of the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP) and other banned organisations and the return of political exiles also saw a ferocious and brutal response by those right-wing forces opposed to democracy. Thousands of innocent black civilians paid the ultimate price as violence swept our townships and people were murdered in their homes, thrown off trains and slaughtered in our streets.

These were brutal times and fear stalked the land. It is convenient for some today to believe that these were not dangerous times and that we gave up too much in the negotiations process. In hindsight we did achieve a “political miracle”. Chris Hani represented the best of our patriots in wanting a meaningful democratic outcome for our people.

I reflect on some of the things that Chris Hani talked about and shared with me. He had decided that he would not go into Parliament although there was tremendous pressure on him. He was a communist and a democrat. He felt that power should also be built outside of government because of the political lessons he had learnt from other transitions.

Eight days before Comrade Chris was assassinated in April 1993, he was interviewed by social historian Luli Callinicos. In this interview, on the eve of the 1994 democratic election, he said that South Africa faced a “new enemy” and a “new struggle”. That enemy, he said, was socio-economic; it was about the struggle for jobs, houses, schools, so that we can build a society that cares. 

What Comrade Chris was calling for was a culture of service. A culture where nurses are guided by an ethic of care, teachers by an ethic of learning, police by an ethic of community safety, and local government by an ethic of service delivery. The new enemy, he said, was corruption and “we in the party have been discussing how we should cut down on salaries of ministers, of parliamentarians, so that if you are in Parliament in Cape Town, you actually rent a flat like everybody”. 

Importantly, he said in the interview that we must allow “the formation of many democratic formations in this country, organs of civil  society, like the civics, independent trade unions, students’ organisations, teachers’ organisations, organisations of housewives , women, gays … so that we are kept reminded of the needs  of the people on the ground”.

He anticipated the major challenges we would experiences as a democracy when he said, “I think, finally, the ANC will have to fight a new enemy. That enemy would be another struggle to make freedom and democracy worthwhile to ordinary South Africans. Our biggest enemy would be what we do in the field of socio-economic restructuring;  creation of jobs; building of houses, schools, medical facilities, overhauling our education, eliminating illiteracy, building a society which cares, and fighting corruption and moving into the gravy train of using power, government position to enrich individuals.  We must build a different culture in this country, different from Africa, different from the Nationalist Party.  And that culture should be one of service to people.”

This is advice that we must all take to heart. After all the priority in education are the interests of the child, not the teachers, parents or government. In health it is the interests of the patient and, most importantly for our political and economic elites, it is the interests of the citizen.  When all of us take that to heart when we act in our different roles then we would have truly understood the wisdom of Chris Hani.

Speaking at Hani's funeral Joe Slovo said: “Chris Hani was killed by those who would like to see an explosion of carnage and race war, a massive spilling of blood, and the end of negotiations. The assassins want to drag us back to a military battlefield. Let us draw them back to a battlefield of our choosing – the battlefield of the ballot. They may have the guns. But we have the majority. Chris Hani had a dream of democracy. They killed the man, but they can never kill the dream. And the dream Chris Hani had is about to become a reality.”

As Hani said often: “We as the ANC-led liberation alliance, have nothing to fear, and everything to gain, from a climate of political tolerance. We do not fear open contest and free debate with other organisations. Open debate can only serve to uncover the bankruptcy of our political opponents.”

I think that is the soundest advice we should all take to heart in these troubling times, both at home in South Africa and abroad. 

This was orginally published in the Daily Maverick.

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