Character Assassin – Ronnie Kasrils’ right of reply to RW Johnson’s ‘The Killing of Chris Hani’

BizNews prides itself as a publication that provides views from all sides of the spectrum of thought leadership, and as such, our policy is always to publish a right of reply. Below is Ronnie Kasrils’ reply to RW Johnson’s recent two-part series on the assassination of Chris Hani. RW Johnson: The New South Africa’s original sin – Chris Hani assassination and RW Johnson: The Killing of Chris Hani, published by BizNews on the 7th and 11th of December respectively.

A note from Ronnie Kasrils: In the interests of fairness, and especially given the great interest shown in your publication of RW Johnson’s two part article on the assassination of Chris Hani, I would be obliged if you would publish my article. I am sure you would agree that his contentious views on a highly contestable issue is necessary in the national and public interest.

This article was first published in Africa is a Country

Character Assassin

By Ronnie Kasrils

It is scarcely surprising in a country where conspiracy theories thrive, that the parole of Janusz Walus, should revive questions about the 1993 assassination of SACP General Secretary, Chris Hani by his hand. It is understandable that Hani’s family, and the Party he led, should have been the first to question whether a wider conspiracy existed. Conspiracies do abound, but for matters of such national importance, it is vital to do sober research, investigation and analysis. Those, who thrust themselves to the fore with speculative, fanciful and libellous story telling, should at least warrant circumspection. They invariably excite the most basic of prejudices, and far from clarifying possible leads, muddy the waters. RW Johnson’s latest foray in BizNews, is such an aberration, scraping the bottom of a barrel of toxic waste (RW Johnson: The New South Africa’s original sin – Chris Hani assassination, 7 and 11 December 2022).

His article is a rehash of the theory peddled in his book, South Africa’s Brave New World, published in 2009, correctly described by a Guardian reviewer as “a record of pretty well every piece of unsubstantiated gossip to have circulated South Africa’s rumour mills.” Johnson is no stranger to controversy, having outraged the likes of Andre Brink, Roger Southall and Pierre de Vos, for his reliance on hearsay, private informants, bizarre stories and uninformed speculation. Particularly damning was Helen Zille’s rejection of Johnson’s claims “of doing things I have never done, or of believing things that have never entered my head, or of devising strategies that are figments of a critic’s imagination.” (Politicsweb 29 March 2022).

In fact RW Johnson’s intellectual credibility was forfeited a decade ago in liberal circles when he wrote a racist piece for the London Review of Books (LRB)  in which he compared the horrific xenophobic attacks in South Africa to baboons fighting rottweilers. According to Ben Fogel, writing for Africa is a Country, Johnson’s crude racist stereotypes provoked widespread outrage among intellectuals and academics worldwide culminating in an open letter condemning the LRB for granting him a platform.

The core of Johnson’s proposition, regarding who was behind Chris Hani’s murder is that Thabo Mbeki and his “partner” in crime, a ghoulish Joe Modise (“who killed people with his bare hands”), should be considered prime suspects: The reason: Chris Hani was an obstacle to their ambitions. He cites Hani’s popularity at the ANC’s Durban conference (July 1991), claiming it was a “disaster for Mbeki”, who was loudly booed by the delegates. He avoids informing his readers that Hani topped Mbeki by a narrow vote (Hani 1858, Mbeki 1824) or that Modise was 12th with 1510; a popular vote of confidence too. The bout of booing is fiction. He claims this took place when Mbeki was tasked with explaining why the lifting of economic sanctions was desirable. A very tricky moment. When Mbeki had made the case, the delegates were won over and applauded. That was a moment of triumph for Mbeki. I was there; and can call on countless others to substantiate this.

Certainly, a degree of rivalry existed between contenders for positions, not unknown in politics, and well handled by the ANC in those times. Was there a need to connive at “removing Hani from society” – to use that apartheid-era term? Not at all. It was Hani who disqualified himself from becoming ANC President, by accepting the position of General Secretary of the SACP, six months later. There was no way that from such a position he could achieve the presidency of the country. Chris knew it, we all knew it. That simple point negates virtually RW Johnson’s entire thesis as he builds his mafiosi version of Mbeki and Modise in order to destroy their reputations.

Johnson cobbles up a thumb-suck of ANC and Apartheid intelligence elements, united in a plot to ensure Hani’s assassination, serving Mbeki and Modise’s ambitions.  

He queries how Derby-Lewis and Walus could have known the location of Hani’s house, without assistance. Yet that was no big secret – most of Boksburg and journalists among others, were well aware of his address. In fact, what emerged in their trial was that Arthur Kemp, reporter for the Citizen newspaper, and close associate of Derby Lewis’s wife, Gaye, had provided the couple with the home addresses of ten ANC/SACP leaders including Hani.  She was the key player of the trio. Her two accomplices failed to obtain amnesty at the TRC because they protected her. There were clearly others higher up but no-one in the ANC was involved, whatever the real rivalries and or groupings in the movement. Johnson relies heavily on the fact that Hani’s bodyguards had the day off when Walus struck, suggesting that such crucial information could only have emanated from ANC sources; and that this would have been provided to his killer. Sorry Bill, nobody apart from Hani knew of his impromptu intention to dismiss his bodyguard so they could be with their families that Easter weekend. Walus, carrying out reconnaissance in the area, chanced upon him jogging home from an early morning run. It was an opportunistic killing that caught the Derby-Lewis couple unprepared for a police raid that would follow. The circumstances also put paid to another of Johnson’s fanciful suppositions, that Chris Hani was in fear for his life, and was demanding protection to be enhanced. Giving his bodyguard time off, and going for a jog, hardly confirms the reality of that suggestion. 

Johnson scoops into his narrative a freak show of shadowy spooks to build his case.

He claims to have ascertained from a variety of ANC sources that there had been an ANC plot to kill Hani scheduled for ten days after Walus struck. No ANC names are provided. Some disreputable regime-era spooks are cited, now conveniently deceased or disappeared. One double-agent is referred to as a colonel in MK, which in point of fact had no ranking system.  There is no recognition from Johnson’s meandering pen that the world inhabited by spies is notorious for invented sources. Johnson, the Oxford don, does not ask any questions that go against his own invented theory. That’s not the methodology of a reputable journalist, let alone a professional historian, but the spin of a pompous ass.

He needs to find a henchman for Mbeki, and utilises the deceased Modise, whose family have no recourse to sue for libel in South African litigation.

He states that Modise was a one-time boss of the notorious Spoilers gang that plagued Alexandra township in the 1950’s. Modise was not from Alexandra. He was from Sophiatown, and was employed as a Putco bus driver, joining the ANC and active in the resistance to enforced removals of which he and his newly wedded wife were victims, being forcibly removed to Dube, in today’s Soweto. In 1956 (at only 27 years of age) he was on trial with Mandela and 156 treason trialists. Hardly time to run a gang in Alexandra.

Johnson claims Modise lived in comfort in Lusaka, in an upmarket suburb. I stayed with him at times, in the working class township of Kabwata, where homes were akin to RDP dwellings. I slept on the couch in a two-bedroomed house, occupied by his family. If the place was shared with a well-known cocaine dealer as claimed by Johnson, he must have been invisible.  Diamond and drug running, bank robberies, arms sales to Unita – all allegations conjured up by Johnson, as fanciful as the cocaine dealer. Actually, these were stories manufactured by the apartheid security police, and spread by their agents who infiltrated the ANC in exile. The growing Modise family did move to Avondale, a better off Lusaka suburb, as Johnson says, but they lived in backyard quarters of a main house.

He claims Modise was responsible for the brutal torture of MK dissidents in Angola. That’s not true either. Security was the responsibility of the ANC’s security department, and not MK. They had their hands full uncovering highly dangerous agents; and there were abuses later admitted to by the ANC, within the context of apartheid security forces murderous attacks on opponents inside and outside South Africa.  It was Modise who raised the issue in the NEC, supported by Joe Slovo, Chris Hani, Pallo Jordan, Modise’s wife Jackie (MK chief of communications), and myself. We were also aggrieved at the removal of some MK commanders from the forward areas by the security organ for questioning, which we believed was often without sufficient cause.

The issue of MK’s Natal regional commander, Thami Zulu (real name Muziwakhe Ngwenya), is a case in point. Johnson claims that Zulu “annoyed” Modise and for that reason, his fate was sealed. In fact, it was Modise with Hani who was to the fore in objecting to Zulu’s detention and demanding his release. It is well known that Jacob Zuma, heading the ANC’s counterintelligence directorate, was the source of Zulu’s lengthy incarceration. 

Johnson doesn’t fail to latch on to The Memorandum of 1969 (so-called Hani Memorandum), a document sharply critical of the ANC leadership, signed by seven cadres who participated in the 1967-68 incursions into then Rhodesia. Many of its strategic recommendations were adopted at the critical Morogoro Conference of 1969, which saw the relegation of a number of leaders but not Modise. Rumours surfaced over the years that Modise had pressed for the execution of the authors of the memorandum, which Johnson seizes upon as gospel. Modise demanded no such measure. As MK commander he was the obvious target for the accusations of disgruntled and demotivated elements, agents among them, through difficult years of exile. 

In the course of time, Modise and Hani worked closely together in an amicable relationship, sharing many dangers together, including fighting Unita in Angola, but primarily developing the armed struggle in South Africa.  I saw this at close quarters in the MK high command through the very challenging 1980’s. As many others did and can attest to.

Johnson, a relentless character assassin of those he clearly despises, approaches his victim with gusto, claiming: “When I questioned former members of the Security Police working for the ANC government, they all confirmed that Modise had been a police informant under apartheid.” What a sweeping, clueless pronouncement. No genuine security professionals ever reveal sources, even after such a person’s death. That’s an iron rule. And the apartheid-era service has been pretty tight lipped. Why open up to someone like Johnson whom they would undoubtedly regard as a buffoon?

Johnson rises to the occasion in dealing with what he regards as Modise’s pressing ambition: securing the minister of defence portfolio and making a fortune through arms deals. To achieve that, Modise had to deal with Hani. As I have already pointed out – once Chris Hani became SACP leader in 1991, he forfeited any possibility of becoming ANC president or minister of defence. With that Johnson’s whole case falls apart. Did Joe Modise acquire immense wealth from arms procurement, as Johnson claims in the second part of his article? No evidence of gain from corrupt practice has transpired from several commissions of enquiry. or as resolutely as investigative journalists have sought to prove. Johnson’s reference to secret bank accounts abroad is a shot in the dark, just like his phantom sources. When he does name a real person, striving to prove nepotistic appointments, he is prone to comical error, reflecting proclivity for lazy research or simply failure to carry out the necessary checks.  Lambert Moloi, whom he claims was Modise’s brother-in-law, had no such connection. The Modise family have tirelessly pointed this out many times to the media and the various commissions of enquiry, in refuting the allegations against him. The fact is that the main asset left by Joe Modise to his family is a middle class house in Centurion, Pretoria, built in 1997, worth about R1.5 million at the time. Not implausible for a government minister and working wife to have purchased. There is simply no Modise fortune. His wife Jacqueline aged 80 only recently retired after years of running a small, struggling business. 

Johnson’s claim that Modise was only interested in defence equipment procurement as a Minister reflects that he just does not know what he is talking about. From the get-go in 1994 Modise was deeply involved in the formidable task of transforming the new defence force, integrating the former adversarial forces, demobilising those who were not seeking a military career, overseeing new legislation, including the White Paper Johnson incorrectly claims he never read, establishing a civilian secretariat to offset the previous hegemony of military command, and steering an unprecedented, consultative defence review through parliament to the unanimous acceptance of all parties at the time. Its finalisation, and signing, took place after his death. To date, no corruption from the executive arm of state, has come to light. The Zuma-Thales corruption case involves the private sector. Zuma is on trial. Not Mbeki or Modise, because despite all Johnson’s fancy theories, there is nothing that can possibly link these two long serving struggle heroes to massive corruption, and the foul murder of Chris Hani.

One can go on and on showing the implausibility of Johnson’s vindictive suppositions. They do amount to character assassination.  

Any journal worth its salt should show greater responsibility in giving free rein to such malicious nonsense.

Ronnie Kasrils

Minister of Intelligence Services (2004-2008)


15 December 2022