RW Johnson: The New South Africa’s original sin – Chris Hani assassination

By RW Johnson*

The assassination of Chris Hani in April 1993 was the original sin of the New South Africa. Hani’s death nearly provoked civil war. But it also profoundly changed the political balance within the ANC – and thus the country. Hani, still a handsome young man at 50, was by far the most charismatic figure among the returning exiles, the hero of many of the MK fighters whom he had been drilling down in the Transkei, a man who had caught the imagination not only of the black youth and many ANC activists, but who had also won broad popularity within the movement.

The rise of Hani

Crucially, at the 1991 Durban conference of the ANC Hani had topped the list in the delegates’ vote for membership of the National Executive. In doing so he had out-distanced his great rival, Thabo Mbeki and thus established himself as the leading member of the successor generation to the old troika of Tambo, Mandela and Sisulu. Hani and Mbeki were then locked in a struggle for the ANC’s deputy chairmanship. Mandela, worried that their rivalry might split the party, drafted Walter Sisulu back in to take the post instead.

The ANC conference was, indeed, a disaster for Mbeki. For years he had been seen as the ANC crown prince. Not only was that status torn away from him but Mbeki badly misjudged the conference mood. For, unlike the ANC conferences held in exile, the Durban conference was bursting with the more spontaneous presence of the newly organised internal ANC. The rank and file, angered by the suspension of the armed struggle, reacted badly when Mbeki argued for the ending of economic sanctions, saying (correctly) that they would merely handicap an incoming ANC government. He was loudly booed. Moreover, Cyril Ramaphosa had been cheered in as the new ANC Secretary-General – another popular new contender who, worryingly, seemed to have Mandela’s support.

Moreover, whereas Mbeki and many others were quietly ditching their membership of the Communist Party (the SACP), Hani, an unabashed revolutionary, was the new SACP leader. He stood for radical purism, a sea-green incorruptible uninterested in compromise. Driving through the Transkei in 1992 I had been struck that all the ANC cadres I met wanted Hani for President, not Mandela.  The plan, clearly, was that Hani would become ANC leader after Mandela and thus unite, in his own person, the leadership of the ANC and SACP – effectively an SACP takeover. All this and more was smashed by Hani’s assassination.

An open and shut case?

Almost immediately, Janusz Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis were arrested for the murder. The case seemed open and shut. As Mandela was careful to emphasise, a white Afrikaner woman had witnessed the shooting and had come forward to put the finger on Walus. And in any case, Walus confessed. Finish and klaar? 

No, not really. Walus and Derby-Lewis had not taken into account the fact that, with the return of ANC exiles, the apartheid security police had had to learn to share their space with the ANC intelligence apparat. The two sides were in regular contact with one another – they had, in any case, penetrated each other’s organisations long before. But they also watched one another like hawks. Such was the reality of “dual power” in the 1990-94 situation. Inevitably, any plot to assassinate Hani was bound to become known to both these rival intelligence services. 

Walus and Derby-Lewis had also not taken into account the fact that several other figures had strong motives for wanting to see Hani done away with. Indeed, I later ascertained from a variety of ANC sources that there had been an ANC plot to kill Hani scheduled for ten days after Walus actually did the deed. Meanwhile, many wondered how members of the white Right like Walus and Derby-Lewis could have known such key details as which was Hani’s house, or that he had spent the previous night with a lover (a Transkei Airways stewardess), or the fact that Hani’s bodyguards had the day off when Walus struck.

Winnie Mandela, who had been close to Hani, insisted that “moderate” ANC leaders had conspired to eliminate Hani by passing on to the apartheid Security Police, the dates when Hani’s bodyguards would not be on duty. Quite clearly Winnie was hinting that Mbeki had been involved and there was no shortage of ANC voices willing to name names on that score. There was, though, no evidence to back such an accusation and Mbeki himself remained silent. Hani’s widow, Limpho, was so unsure of the truth that she asked the DP leader, Tony Leon, whether he could shed any light on the affair.

Ramon and Riley

Ramon, a double agent (working for the NIS but notionally employed by the ANC Intelligence Dept – his real name was Mohammed Amin Laher – was able to prove that the NIS had had advance warning of the Hani assassination, including its date, and also attested that ANC Intelligence was equally aware of the plot, in which some of its own agents were involved. Indeed, Ramon’s NIS handler, Eugene Riley, actually told the Mail and Guardian that Hani would be assassinated several days beforehand. Ramon even claimed to have documents showing that ANC intelligence and some ANC leaders had been involved in the plot. Their job had been “to facilitate” the Walus/Derby-Lewis plot.These documents pointed squarely at the future Defence Minister, Joe Modise. 

Stefaans Brummer, an investigative journalist, interviewed members of the ANC’s own investigative team. They confirmed that there had been a second team of killers besides Walus. There had been a second car besides Walus’s outside Hani’s house, evidence that someone had been standing behind a wall next door to the house and one of the bullets that killed Hani had been fired by someone other than Walus.  

Moreover, Hani himself had learnt of a plot against him and had demanded that the ANC step up his security arrangements – but he met a stony refusal. The police, for their part, proved “unwilling” to follow up any of these leads. Many journalists tried to find the Afrikaans woman who had witnessed the assassination but she had vanished into thin air. Pretty clearly she had been an intelligence operative placed there to play such a role.

Ramon was extremely nervous and hid himself both physically and under various aliases. He completely evaded the TRC inquiry into the assassination and simply disappeared. Eugene Riley was himself killed by an unknown assassin only eight months after Hani. Riley’s girlfriend, Julie Wilken, testified that she had typed out Riley’s reports showing advance knowledge of the assassination. 

Wilken also said that Riley had told her that Walus and Derby-Lewis would be rewarded for their work by being spirited away to Poland and Australia, respectively. (There is no evidence that this promise was ever made to the two men.) Riley’s murder and Ramon’s disappearance suggested that those who had been Walus’s accomplices were protecting themselves by getting rid of witnesses. Unsurprisingly, Wilken disappeared into a witness protection programme for over eight years.

Eight years later…

Hearing, all those years later, that Wilken had re-appeared, I tracked her down. She confirmed that Riley had had a close relationship with Shariff Khan and his son, Ramon (Laher). Ramon had been a colonel in MK and had passed on to Riley information about large-scale drug-dealing by a leading ANC figure close to Hani and other information useful for Riley’s own criminal activities. Two weeks before the Hani assassination, Riley had learned that a prominent ANC leader was about to be killed and three days beforehand he learned that Hani was the target. This information was widely known within Security Police and ANC circles but neither did anything to prevent the killing. 

Ramon had told Riley that ANC Intelligence had decided to facilitate the assassination, though both Walus and Derby-Lewis were far too naive to realise that they were being assisted. Ramon said that senior ANC figures had decided Hani must be removed to prevent him from toppling Mandela. This was clearly a smokescreen to disguise the real motives of the ANC leaders who wanted Hani done away with, for there was never the slightest chance of Hani deposing Mandela or even attempting such a thing. For their part the Security Police saw Hani as one of their main opponents and found little reason to step in to save him. 

Fruitless inquiries

The Hani murder was investigated for the ANC by a team led by Mathews Phosa. He declared that there had definitely been a wider conspiracy to kill Hani but that those involved had covered their tracks. 

The TRC also looked at the possibility of a wider right wing conspiracy but found nothing. The TRC was too loaded with ANC-aligned personalities to look anywhere else but on the right. But it clearly didn’t want to recommend that Walus or Derby-Lewis were eligible for amnesty, although by the TRC’s own rules they should have been (amnesty was available to those who had committed violent acts for political motives). 

The TRC justified this by claiming that neither of the two men had made full disclosure. By this they meant that they hadn’t provided any evidence for the wider right wing conspiracy which the TRC wanted to believe in, but for which it had no shred of evidence. 

It was immediately clear that the assassination had settled the succession to Mandela: Mbeki was now the only plausible candidate. Mandela might favour Ramaphosa but the dominant exile wing of the ANC had settled on Mbeki. On the principle of cui bono many now accused Mbeki of having had a role in Hani’s murder but there was no evidence for this.

‘Bra Joe’ Modise

Among the suspects one name stood out above all others: Joe Modise. Modise had been a gangster boss in Alexandra township. His gang, the Spoilers, was notorious for their professionalism, their ruthlessness and their exceptional violence. In the exiled ANC everyone was afraid of Modise: he was a physically powerful man (an ex-boxer), was known to have carried a gun even under apartheid, and had killed a number of men with his own hands. The general view was that Modise could and would make anyone who got in his way simply disappear. 

Within MK it was noticed that anyone who annoyed Modise – like the Natal MK leader, Thami Zulu – was doomed. Thami Zulu was accused of being an enemy agent, was detained and tortured by ANC Security for two years and was finally poisoned, but no evidence against him was ever found. Very noticeably, his MK followers  in Natal were all quickly picked up by the SA Security Police. 

Joe Slovo (the MK chief of staff) and Hani (MK Commissar), knowing that gangsters had always had links to the police, feared that Modise was still in touch with that network. As a leader of the Spoilers Modise had always had police contacts and it was only after Modise went into exile in 1962 that the police moved to crush the Spoilers. 

Moreover, Modise was certainly still a gangster – in Zambia he ran the stolen cars racket, with the assistance of Tom Nkobi, the ANC Treasurer-General, and had a hand in a number of bank robberies too. The ANC was always too hungry for the money this produced to make objection.

Modise liked the good life and lived high on the hog, although most exiles were poor. Moreover, exiles liked to live in obscurity for fear of attacks by the SA military, but Modise lived very publicly in his own house in an upmarket suburb and always drove a fancy car: he clearly felt he had nothing to fear.The source of his high income was never explained and in general he was neither liked nor trusted. 

But Modise was a powerful man – the MK commander. As such ANC Intelligence reported to him but he also had a ring of gang members reporting to him, quite apart from his  Security Police contacts. (When I questioned former members of the Security Police working for the ANC government, they all confirmed that Modise had been a police informer under apartheid.)

During his exile years Modise seems to have become involved in diamond smuggling, drug smuggling and arms sales to Unita (despite the fact that the ANC was at war with Unita). In Lusaka, Modise shared his house with a well-known cocaine dealer, a Mister Stevens – though a number of other ANC leaders were equally involved in the drugs trade. As MK commander Modise was also responsible for the brutal torture of MK dissidents in Angola. Modise’s associate, Mzwandile Piliso, the head of ANC security, was the torturer in chief.

Modise vs Hani

In 1968 the young Chris Hani plus another six MK officers signed a bitter statement complaining of the hard life of MK troops in comparison with the perks and privileges enjoyed by the MK high command. Modise was mentioned by name. Modise furiously demanded the execution of all seven men and even after Oliver Tambo intervened to prevent that, Hani remained clearly at risk from Modise’s revenge.

As Hani rose to become the MK No 2 he was more and more obviously a threat to Modise. What was at stake was the position of Minister of Defence in an ANC government. Long before 1994 it was realised that the decades-long ban on arms sales to South Africa had left the country’s military in need of a major rearmament programme. Sniffing a lucrative deal the big international arms dealers began to cultivate possible ANC candidates for the Defence ministry – the French lavished their attentions on Tokyo Sexwale and annoyed the British by boasting that they had already sewn up an arms deal with him. 

As anyone who has read Anthony Sampson’s The Arms Bazaar knows,  arms deals are almost synonymous with corruption. Typically – and not just in Third World countries – such deals involve large pay-offs to the minister of defence, the prime minister and president, for these are the people with make or break power over any arms contract. Naturally, Joe Modise realised this and knew that if he could secure the defence portfolio he stood to make the financial killing of a lifetime. 

The greatest threat that Modise faced was Chris Hani. For a start, if Hani, the MK hero, demanded the defence portfolio, he might be very difficult to stop. But even if Modise secured that portfolio, a big arms deal was bound to be politically controversial. There were bound to be rumours and allegations of corruption. And based on previous experience the man most likely to make such awkward allegations was Chris Hani.

*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.

Read more:

(Visited 18,078 times, 58 visits today)