Book review: Hani – A life too short


“Hani – A life too short” is a sympathetic biography of African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) “struggle” icon Chris Hani, who many believe would have been South Africa’s first post-1994 defence minister. His credentials were impeccable: he had been political commissar of the “Luthuli detachment” in 1967 and later rose to chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”, MK), the ANC’s military wing.

But it was not to be. He was murdered in cold blood over Easter in 1993, and nothing would be the same again. Joe Modise became defence minister instead and the “arms deal” corruption scandal was one result. Thabo Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela as national president and after some particularly nasty infighting he was succeeded by Jacob Zuma. That was likely another outcome. Had Hani lived, he might well have been the second or third post-apartheid head of state. Would the party and the country be mired in their current malaise had that been the case? Of course we will never know. That is indeed the tragedy of a life interrupted.
“Hani – A life too short” started out as a series of features written for the Independent Group’s newspapers to mark the 15th anniversary of his death. The book also followed shortly after the tumultuous ANC’s 52nd national congress at Polokwane in December 2007 that saw Mbeki dumped as party leader in favour of Zuma. In the run-up Smith and Tromp aver “the faithful kept asking: what would Hani have done?”

They continue: “Watching events unfold in the run-up to Polokwane, we were struck by how little was known about Hani. Paging through archived interviews with the then avowed communist, the same facts always seemed to come up- his love of the classics, his personal charm and his revolutionary fervour. There was little insight into the fabric and texture of the man who died too soon. So as journalists at The Star we started a journey, aimed at coinciding with the 15th anniversary of his murder, that would give the newspaper’s readers a deeper understanding of his life and ideology. As we found out more about his life, we discovered that the events we were witnessing firsthand as the ANC shuddered before Polokwane – and afterwards … were in no way unique. And Hani, always prescient, had noted in 1969 what he called ‘the rot’, and warned vociferously against it again before he died.”

What an irony that current ANC youth leader and tenderpreneur-par-excellence likes to boast his political career started at Hani’s funeral. This is perhaps the subtext of this biography: South Africa deserves better. To Smith and Tromp Hani represented that better. The question, now, is who can pick up that mantle?

For the more military reader, there is Hani the soldier and leader – his role in the Wankie incursion, his ceaseless concern for his men, for proper planning and for ensuring logistics support. This was often in shrill contrast to the approach taken by other MK and ANC leaders. Is last year’s soldiers’ mutiny and march to the Union Buildings an echo of the risings in MK’s Angolan camps in the 1980s?

All-in-all, a thought-provoking and important book.

Hani – A life too short

Janet Smith & Beauregard Tromp

Jonathan Ball Publishers