Only the suffering of ‘big people’ matters

In this article on the Daily Friend, Andrew Kenny looks at four killers in South Africa in the 1990s: Janusz Walus, Barend Strydom, Robert McBride and Letlapa Mphahlele, their very different victims and our very different reactions to their crimes. The conclusion he draws is a grim one – that we never hear a word about the grief and suffering of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives of the people who suffered and were killed by Strydom, McBride and Mphahlele. But the grief of Limpho Hani, Chris Hani’s widow, is another matter. And why? Kenny argues that “those were little people, and their grief doesn’t matter. Only the big people matter. Only important people matter. Chris Hani was big and important, so he matters. We must be outraged when his killer is released, and we must sympathise with his widow and daughter. But we need only yawn when the killers of the little people are set free.”  – Sandra Laurence

Crime and Punishment, and the murder of Chris Hani

By Andrew Kenny*

Andrew Kenny

Janusz Walus, who in 1993 assassinated Chris Hani, the Communist Party leader, will be released on parole. This was the decision of the Constitutional Court last week. The decision has caused outrage in many quarters. Limpho Hani, Hani’s widow, called it “diabolical”. It has stirred up old controversies about the strange circumstances surrounding the assassination. More important, it has reawakened deep and disturbing moral questions about our reactions to the cold-blooded murder of different types of people.

I should like to discuss four killers of that era, Janusz Walus, Barend Strydom, Robert McBride and Letlapa Mphahlele, and their very different victims and our very different reactions towards their crimes. I have to say that the other three, who were all released a long time ago, committed more terrible crimes than Walus, who has been in prison for 28 years.

In 1993, South Africa was in a state of high excitement and anxiety. Great fear and great hope chased each other. In 1990 President F W de Klerk had unbanned the ANC and SACP, released Nelson Mandela, and essentially ended apartheid. Negotiations had started to prepare for full democracy. All sides were riven with faction, and political murder was at an all-time high. On 10 April 1993, Chris Hani, General-Secretary of the SACP, was returning to his home in Boksburg. A Polish immigrant, Janusz Walus, shot him dead in his driveway with a 9mm pistol. An “Afrikaans housewife, Margaretha Harmse”, who was driving past at the time, witnessed the murder, identified Walus’s car and notified the police. Within minutes they found Walus and arrested him. Clive Derby-Lewis was arrested as an accomplice. Both were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. This was commuted to life imprisonment. Both appealed for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997 but it was denied, on not very convincing grounds.

For the TRC, the requirements for pardon and release were that the crime had to have a political motive, that the accused had to be part of a bigger political movement, that they had to give full disclosure and that they had to show remorse. These requirements seemed not to apply to killers released outside the TRC hearings. 

The actual assassination of Hani by Walus was amateurish, giving no impression of careful planning. Walus did not disguise himself, did not have a silencer on his gun (as far as I know), made no attempt to get rid of the gun afterwards, and used a car known to belong to him. This was no professional assassination. There were questions about the circumstances around Hani at the time and about the remarkable swiftness with which the police were able to catch Walus. Hani usually had bodyguards but, on this occasion, he had given them the day off. Did someone know about this and inform Walus? (Suppose a prominent politician tells people he is going to visit the zoo in a few days’ time to look at the lions. On the day, a lion breaks out of its cage and kills him. Questions are asked. Why did the lion cage door happen to be unlocked at that moment? Why had the lion not been fed for two days?) I have been unable to find out anything about Margaretha Harmse, and I am puzzled at the speed and ease with which the police found and arrested Walus. You almost have the feeling that they were expecting something.

Rumours swirled about a deeper plot to assassinate Hani, in which Walus was just a naïve and unsuspecting tool. He and Clive Derby-Lewis seem to have belonged to a dimwitted bunch of reactionary hoodlums, who could easily have been tricked into doing somebody else’s dirty work. Hostile factions within the ANC who felt threatened by Hani’s prominence and his exposure of their corruption became the chief suspects. ANC factions have a long tradition of murdering each other, a tradition that carries on today, especially in KZN. The most extreme conspiracy theory concerned Thabo Mbeki, who was indeed a rival of Hani, but I have seen not a scrap of evidence to support this. In his book, South Africa’s Brave New World, R W Johnson gives extensive circumstantial evidence pointing to Joe Modise, the MK commander as the most likely culprit. Modise hated Hani, who had exposed his corruption, especially in the matter of arms, and had threatened him. All this had nothing to do with Walus.

Walus complied perfectly with the TRC’s need for a political motive. He hated communism and had suffered under it in Poland. Communism was more evil than apartheid, causing the deaths of millions of innocent people. People always fled from communist countries. No ordinary black people fled from apartheid, only black activists; on the contrary, black people from the rest of Africa wanted to get into apartheid South Africa. Walus murdered Hani because Hani was a communist, who might impose communist terror on South Africa. His victim was a carefully chosen political enemy. If he and Derby-Lewis had been able to demonstrate to the TRC that they were part of a plot by a wider political grouping, this would have helped them get amnesty. One of the reasons amnesty was denied was because it was felt they had acted alone. The victims of the other three killers were not selected political targets at all, but innocent bystanders. All three killers got off free.

On 14 June 1986, Robert McBride planted a bomb at the “Why Not” restaurant and Magoo’s Bar in Durban. It killed three women and injured 69 people. The timing of his bomb is vitally important. It happened a month after the National Party Government had announced its intention to scrap the hated Pass Laws, perhaps the most hated of all the horrible apartheid laws. People, especially poor women, had suffered and died in famous demonstrations and marches against these wretched laws. It seemed to me that McBride was spitting in their faces. It turns out that he was acting on the orders of Oliver Tambo, the ANC President. This is perfectly consistent with Tambo’s known behaviour: he had ordered black people to be tortured and executed at Camp Quattro, he had supported the necklacing (roasting to death) of working-class blacks in the township, including children who dared to go to school, and he had used the funds intended for the liberation struggle to send his own children to posh private schools in England. It is true that McBride deserved pardon on the grounds that his actions were political, and he was just obeying the orders of his political commander. The fact that his victims were innocent people seems irrelevant to the TRC. McBride was released in a deal between the ANC and the ruling National Party. The other man in that deal was Barend Strydom.

On 15 November 1988, a young white man, Barend Strydom, walked into Strijdom Square in Central Pretoria with a 9mm pistol. He was a rather handsome young man, with a pleasant, smiling face. He walked up to one black person after another and, with a friendly grin, shot them dead. He killed seven people, all black. He explained that he had killed them because they were black. He was arrested, found guilty of mass murder and sentenced to death. He was released in the same deal that released McBride.

In my research for this article I came across this interview with Strydom after his release: The Smiling Killer The White Wolf (reupload) – Barend Strydom Documentary – Bing video. I watched it in a sort of trance, not quite believing what I saw. It is by far the most terrifying interview I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen it, please do. And please know that Strydom was quickly released and has long been a free man.

On 25 July 1993, Letlapa Mphahlele, a commander of APLA, the PAC’s armed wing, ordered the slaughter of men and women at prayer at St James Church, Cape Town. This was after the date had been set for democratic elections on 27 April 1994. APLA men with assault rifles and hand grenades invaded the church, killing 11 people and injuring 58. A Ukrainian sailor, Dmitri Makogon, lost both legs and an arm. On 30 December 1993, on Mphahlele’s orders, APLA soldiers invaded the Heidelberg Tavern in Cape Town and killed four innocent men and women. Mphahlele was charged but released on a technicality. He refused to appear before the TRC. He was never pursued by the law. He was a free man. He regarded himself as a great African hero, and published a book boasting about his exploits. 

Letlapa Mphahlele and Barend Strydom seem similar. Both congratulated themselves for slaughtering innocent women and men. Both regard themselves as valiant soldiers for their cause. Neither has the slightest remorse. They force us to look hard at the reality of guilt and remorse. We are taught to believe that men who have committed horrible crimes are haunted by guilt. In fact, it seems few of them ever are. I seem to remember a survey of convicted murderers in English prisons. Almost none of them felt any remorse at all about the people they had murdered; they were just sorry that they were in prison. Dostoevsky’s famous novel, Crime and Punishment, deals with the guilty agonising of an impoverished young man, Raskolnikov, after he has murdered his landlady. It might be a masterpiece of literature and philosophy, but it doesn’t seem at all true to the psychology of real people. In real life Raskolnikov would agonise about his punishment but not his crime.

The outcry over the release last week of Janusz Walus seems to have two concerns. First is that his actions were very dangerous for political stability at the time. They certainly were. But according to the TRC that is the very reason he should have had amnesty: the more political your crime, the more eligible you were to be released. The second is deeper. It is over the feelings of Limpho Hani, Chris Hani’s widow. She has never forgiven Walus for murdering her husband, and so ruining her life. People have criticised her for her lack of mercy. I admire those who show forgiveness and mercy, but I must tell you that in her position I should feel the same as her. I should hate Walus. I should never forgive him until after he had been hanged. But that is not the point. The point is why we must worry about her feelings but not the feelings of the loved ones of people slaughtered, mutilated and crippled by McBride, Strydom and Mphahlele. Why do we never hear a word about the grief and suffering of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives of the beloved people they have put in graves and wheelchairs? Why were they never asked how they felt about those killers being set free?

I’ll tell you the answer, the full answer, the grim answer. Those were little people, and little people don’t matter. Their grief doesn’t matter. Only the big people matter. Only important people matter. Chris Hani was big and important, so he matters. We must be outraged when his killer is released, and we must sympathise with his widow and daughter. But we need only yawn when the killers of the little people are set free. We need feel no sorrow at all when the little people weep for their loved ones, departed in blood and pain.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR. If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend.

  • Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.

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