It is scarcely surprising in South Africa, where conspiracy theories thrive, that the parole of Janusz Walus, the assassin of South African Communist Party General Secretary Chris Hani, should revive questions about the April 1993 murder. 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 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 libelous storytelling, 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 on the business news site, BizNews, is one such aberration.
Johnson’s 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 at the time as “a record of pretty well every piece of unsubstantiated gossip to have circulated South Africa’s rumor mills.” Johnson is no stranger to controversy, having outraged the likes of novelist André Brink, political scientist Roger Southall, and constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos, for his reliance on hearsay, private informants, bizarre stories and uninformed speculation. Particularly damning was Democratic Alliance leader 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.”
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 in 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 Hani’s murder is that Thabo Mbeki (at the time a member of the ANC’s national executive committee and one of its lead negotiators) 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 in July 1991, claiming it was a “disaster for Mbeki,” who was loudly booed by the delegates. Johnson avoids informing his readers that Hani and Mbeki easily topped the list for 60 National Executive Committee positions (serving under six senior office bearer posts headed by President Nelson Mandela); that Hani beat Mbeki by a narrow margin (Hani 1,858, Mbeki 1,824); or that Modise was 12th with 1,510—a popular vote of confidence too. The bout of booing is fiction. Johnson 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. Hani knew it, we all knew it. (The ANC and SACP were in an alliance, with the SACP as effectively a junior partner.) 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. He queries how Clive Derby-Lewis, a Conservative Party member of the white parliament, 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, a reporter for the Citizen newspaper, and close associate of Derby Lewis’s wife, Gaye, provided the couple with the home addresses of ten ANC and 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 decision 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 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 the ANC’s armed wing, 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, who previously taught at Oxford University, 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 utilizes 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 1950s. 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 small and modest. 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 (the Angolan movement that collaborated with apartheid South Africa and was a US proxy)—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.
Johnson further 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 ANC’s national executive committee, 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. (Zulu died in Lusaka in 1989, allegedly poisoned.) In fact, it was Modise, with Hani, who objected to Zulu’s detention and demanded his release. It is well known that Jacob Zuma, who headed the ANC’s counterintelligence directorate at the time, was the source of Zulu’s lengthy incarceration.
Johnson doesn’t fail to latch on to The Memorandum of 1969 (the 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. Rumors 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 1980s, as did many others.
Johnson, a relentless character assassin, 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?
Johnson rises to the occasion in dealing with what he regards as Modise’s pressing ambition: securing the minister of defense portfolio and making a fortune through arms deals. To achieve that, Modise had to deal with Hani. Yet, once Hani became SACP leader in 1991, he forfeited any possibility of becoming ANC president or minister of defense. Thus, Johnson’s case falls apart. Did 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. For example, Lambert Moloi, whom he claims was Modise’s brother-in-law, had no such connection. The Modise family have tirelessly pointed this out to the media and the various commissions of enquiry. In fact, 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, as a minister, was only interested in defense equipment procurement reflects his ignorance. From the get-go in 1994 Modise was deeply involved in the formidable task of transforming the new defense force, integrating the former adversarial forces, demobilizing those who were not seeking a military career, overseeing new legislation, including the White Paper that Johnson incorrectly claims he never read, establishing a civilian secretariat to offset the previous hegemony of military command, and steering an unprecedented, consultative defense review through parliament to the unanimous acceptance of all parties at the time. Its finalization, 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 cadres of the struggle 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 amount to character assassination. Any journal worth its salt should show greater responsibility, in giving free rein to such malicious nonsense.