RW Johnson: The Killing of Chris Hani

Read Part I here: RW Johnson: The New South Africa’s original sin – Chris Hani assassination

By RW Johnson*

Given the bad blood between Joe Modise and Chris Hani there was never any doubt that Modise would be bound to back Thabo Mbeki against his rival, Chris Hani. Mbeki too had no real choice: he had no roots in MK but needed its support. Of the other MK leaders, Joe Slovo had never trusted Mbeki and Tokyo Sexwale was very close to Hani. That left only Modise. The resulting pact between Mbeki and Modise was to determine much of the ANC’s early trajectory in government.

One can only speculate on the terms of their bargain. Clearly, Mbeki wanted Modise’s support for the post-Mandela succession: immediately Mbeki was to become First Deputy President – in effect the prime minister of the Mandela government. In return Mbeki supported Modise’s bid for the Defence Ministry.

The great arms deal

Long before the 1994 government was formed Modise had held protracted talks with a variety of arms dealers but he was particularly close to BAE Systems (British Aerospace) who wanted to re-equip the SAAF. Doubtless Modise was soon able to descry the likely contours of the arms deal as a whole. He seems to have had no difficulty in selling the idea to Mbeki, which in turn made it easier to get Mandela on board.

The SA government has never owned up to the full cost of the arms deal – it was only finally paid off in 2020 – but it seems likely to have cost around $6 billion. This was a very large sum especially for a government avowedly committed to an ambitious domestic programme of social and economic spending. All other ministries were bound to be squeezed as a result of such a costly deal and there was bound to be much indignant dispute about the government’s priorities.

After all, South Africa had no visible enemies and it was far from clear that any extra defence expenditure was really necessary. As it turned out, it clearly wasn’t necessary. Almost all the new arms bought were barely used and most were soon out of commission. The real point of the deal had, transparently, been the large corrupt payoffs it involved.

Given these obvious difficulties it was clear that the only hope of getting the new cabinet to accept the arms deal was if Mbeki and Mandela insisted on it. This they did. Their motive was simple. The ANC had a huge money problem. Its members contributed almost no funds and yet the demands of electioneering and running a permanent party organization were extremely expensive. Mandela’s personal fund-raising both from local business and the ANC’s international friends had filled the gap in 1990-94 but that could hardly be relied on in the future. By 1999, if not before, the party was going to need a large infusion of funds. The arms deal was a heaven-sent way of procuring just that.

In terms of normal practise in the arms trade one would also expect both Mbeki and Mandela to have received handsome personal payoffs. Numerous allegations have been made on this score but we have no definitive proof.

A local concern was Denel, the state-owned arms company which, with the collapse of arms spending, had no business. The government, having promised “Jobs, jobs, jobs” at the 1994 election could hardly afford to close Denel down, so it had to be sewn into the arms deal. Modise started by appointing Lambert Moloi, his brother-in-law and an MK commander, to the board of Denel, where he sat next to Modise’s special adviser, Fana Hlongwane. Hlongwane, who was to be a major recipient and courier of corrupt funds, also got his girl friend a job in Denel and then with BAE Systems. Two other Modise cronies, Diliza Mji and Keith Mokoape were put on the board of the Armscor parastatal and Mji was also appointed non-executive chairman of BAE (Southern Africa).

The large task with which the Defence ministry was saddled was the integration of MK, Apla and the old SADF into the new SANDF. Modise showed no interest in this whatsoever and concentrated solely on the arms deal. All other duties fell to his junior minister, Ronnie Kasrils.

Corruption: details emerge

BAE had clearly made a deal with Modise. Cleverly, they bought a stake in Denel to earn government good will and gain a foot inside the door. The pay-off came when Modise intervened in the bid process to give the contract for jet trainers to BAE’s Hawks, despite the SAAF’s preference for the far cheaper Italian alternative. Mbeki, who headed the cabinet committee on the arms deal, waved this highly questionable deal through.

In 2003 The Guardian reported that BAE had paid 150 million pounds as a commission to Modise and Hlongwane for this deal. This led to an inquiry in 2007 by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office, which asked for South Africa’s help in probing Hlongwane’s bank accounts. Mbeki was hypersensitive about this and stunned the audience at the Davos World Economic Forum by launching a bitter attack on Tony Blair for allowing the SFO inquiry to go ahead. Blair made no reply. The SFO reported that BAE had paid R1 billion in bribes to eight people who had facilitated the decision to buy the Hawks.

Simultaneously details emerged in Germany of bribes paid by ThyssenKrupp in order to get the contract for frigates and submarines. Chippy Shaik, an adviser to Modise, was reported to have received $3 million in commissions but the name most frequently mentioned was an intimate of Mbeki’s, Tony Georgiadis, who had brokered the deal. Daimler Aerospace also confessed to paying bribes as part of the deal. Eyebrows were raised at Mbeki’s connection to Georgiadis, a sanctions-buster under apartheid and a close ally of the apartheid government.

Meanwhile the arms deal had run into strong opposition both in Parliament and the cabinet. Mbeki consistently used his position to force through the deal – and to protect Joe Modise. Both Jay Naidoo, the minister for the RDP, and the finance minister, Trevor Manuel, were appalled by the deal’s expense and the hole it would make in all other spending plans. Joe Slovo also smelled a rat and strongly opposed the deal. Parliament’s defence committee suggested that major decisions should await a threat assessment and a defence review. Parliament agreed and tried to impose a R10 billion limit on arms expenditure. The result was the 1996 Defence White Paper which recommended lower defence spending.

Modise didn’t even read the White Paper, ignored Parliament and took the deal straight to cabinet. Here it met strenuous opposition but Mbeki forced it through. Meanwhile Andrew Feinstein and Gavin Woods fought a doughty rearguard action against the deal in Parliament but Mbeki got the Speaker, Frene Ginwala, to help crush their opposition, as Feinstein revealed in his book, After the Party. Feinstein resigned from Parliament and the ANC when his demand for an independent investigation of the arms deal was refused.

Mbeki’s protection of Modise

In March 1997 Modise came close to disaster. Five former Security Police officers, applying for amnesty to the TRC, said they had a list of former agents and informants who were now government high-ups. The TRC sought to suppress publication but Modise’s name leaked into the press. President Mandela immediately demanded publication of the whole list. The revelation that the Commander of MK had been a police spy would have sunk Modise but Mbeki hurriedly got the ANC national working committee to oppose publication on the grounds that this was a plot by the apartheid police to de-stabilise the ANC. It was a close call.

Mbeki repeatedly and angrily denied all accusations that the arms deal had been corrupt but in the years that followed more and more details of the corruption slipped out. Modise left government in 1999 – with the arms deal complete he had no further interest in government business. He became a director of companies in a number of concerns that had done well out of the arms deal. He died of cancer in 2001, with Mbeki solicitous to the last. Modise left almost nothing in his will – his money was in secret bank accounts in Malaysia, Lichtenstein and elsewhere.

As Modise lay dying Mbeki mobilised almost thre entire cabinet to rush to his bedside where Mbeki awarded him the Order of the Star of South Africa Grand Cross in gold – what Paul Trewhela termed “a suitably Ruritanian finale”. Mbeki insisted that the idea of this award was Mandela’s but nobody believed him. Nobody in the ANC could have many doubts about the incongruity of the country’s highest honour being awarded to Joe Modise, of all people.

There had been similar amazement when Mbeki had named the government’s Intelligence Academy in Mahikeng after Modise’s associate, Mzwandile Piliso, even though Piliso had cheerfully admitted to torturing MK soldiers in the Angolan camps. Similarly, Mbeki had fought the publication of the TRC Report because of its condemnation of Piliso’s atrocities in the Angolan camps. Given that Mbeki had no personal responsibility for any of those horrors, his attitude is explicable only in terms of his determination to keep Modise onside.

There was much speculation that Modise’s death might bring to light some of the dirty secrets about the Hani assassination and the arms deal. Such reports doubtless created great nervousness in some quarters but in fact nothing emerged.

Feinstein emigrated to London, declaring that the arms deal was “the point at which the ANC lost its moral compass”. As may be seen, this was quite untrue. In reality its innocence – if it ever really existed – had been lost long, long before. Like many whites who joined the ANC Feinstein had joined an idealised projection of what he would have liked the ANC to be. What Feinstein really meant was that the arms deal was when he lost his innocence. In Britain Feinstein became an enthusiastic supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, a strange allegiance given that Feinstein is Jewish and that Corbyn was anathema to the British Jewish community.

The allegations against Mbeki

The great unanswered question relates to the nature of Mbeki’s accord with Modise. Mbeki was not normally given to such strong protective friendships as that which he displayed in relation to Modise. It seems clear that Mbeki and Modise initially came together as a result of their common opposition to Chris Hani – who was a major threat to both of them. Clearly their agreement included Mbeki’s wholesale support for the arms deal and it also led Mbeki to adopt a strongly protective stance towards Modise, who thus never had to answer for any of his many crimes.

But the real question is whether their accord included a decision that Hani had to go. As we have seen, there is strong reason to believe that Modise facilitated Hani’s assassination, though equally there is no doubt about Walus and Derby-Lewis’s primary guilt. The fact that ANC Intelligence, which reported to Modise, both knew about the impending assassination and refused Hani’s plea for extra protection, is damning. Similarly, the fact that Julie Wilken spent eight years in a witness protection programme for fear of being killed like Eugene Riley – but emerged from it as soon as Modise died – makes it plain who she felt the threat came from.

Naturally, there is no proof and only circumstantial evidence on this matter but it is also sensible to realise that throughout his entire career, although Mbeki was a past master of disposing of rivals, he was never involved in anything as brutal as an assassination. If anything, he had a horror of the cruel and dirty methods that men like Modise and Piliso used. So while one can well imagine Modise saying that he would make sure that Hani disappeared from the scene, one cannot imagine that Mbeki would have been involved in the “facilitation” of the Walus assassination which Modise then mounted.

That is, the most one can imagine is that Mbeki had some knowledge of what Modise was up to – though there is, of course, no proof of that. And, as we have seen, quite a few people had foreknowledge of the assassination attempt on Hani. The most that one can say is that Mbeki may have been one of them. Of course, some would insist that Mbeki may have given Modise an incentive to ensure Hani disappeared by offering, in return, to back him for defence minister and support the arms deal he coveted. But not only is there no evidence for that but Modise hardly needed extra incentives to conspire against Hani.

The fate of the dramatis personae

After interviewing Julie Wilken I went to Pretoria Central to meet Walus and Derby-Lewis. They were a complete contrast: Walus extremely miserable, Derby-Lewis full of good cheer. Both of them were clearly ignorant of any wider conspiracy involving Modise. Walus said he had had no idea that Hani’s bodyguard had the day off and that throughout the assassination attempt he was extremely tense, worrying that Hani’s bodyguard might appear at any moment.

It was impossible not to feel sorry for Walus. His elder brother had told me that Walus was “as naive as a boy scout” and that seems to have been true. His grasp of the whole South African political situation had been rudimentary at best. He said he felt deeply guilty and sorry about the assassination and had made it clear that he felt it was only right that he should serve his full sentence for having committed that crime. His one request had been that he should be sent to Poland to serve that time in a Polish jail. “At least I will have Polish people around me and be able to talk to them. Here I have no one.” He seemed desperately lonely and desolate. His request was, of course, refused.

In fact Walus was to serve twice his proper sentence. In terms of the law he should have been paroled after fifteen years but he served 29 years. But then in terms of the TRC’s rules he and Derby-Lewis should have been amnestied long before. It was utterly disgraceful for the TRC to refuse to investigate the evidence which was in front of its face of a wider conspiracy involving ANC Intelligence and, perhaps, the apartheid Security Police. Instead it chose to imagine a “wider right-wing conspiracy” and then penalise Walus and Derby-Lewis for not being able to substantiate that.

Derby-Lewis seemed jovial and accidentally let slip the fact that he was conversant with the internet. Surprised, I asked whether he had internet facilities in his cell ? “Damn, I shouldn’t have said that”, was all he would say. But he had also become the Birdman of Alcatraz. Like Burt Lancaster in the famous film, he had developed a passionate fondness for birds and somehow acquired sufficient bird food to ensure that they flocked to his cell window.

Derby-Lewis told me that “When I get out of here I’m going to get a piece of land which I’ll make into a bird sanctuary. I love birds.” I warned him that the South African countryside was full of predators and that he would find it difficult to protect the birds. “Oh well”, he said, “I’ll make sure of that. I’ll get a gun.” I pointed out that things had changed since he’d been in jail and that it was now very difficult to own a gun. Law-abiding citizens often found it impossible. The only people who had easy access to guns were the criminals.

Derby-Lewis roared with laughter. “But I am a criminal”, he said.

In fact Clive Derby-Lewis, like Joe Modise, died of cancer, though he outlived Modise by fifteen years. He was released not long before his death in November 2016. Walus has now been released and is serving out his parole.

  • RW Johnson is a British journalist, political scientist, and historian who lives in South Africa and has been a citizen and passport holder of the country for almost thirty years. Born in England, he was educated at Natal University and Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar. He was a fellow in politics at Magdalen College, Oxford, for 26 years and remains an emeritus fellow.

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