Chris Hani’s black Marxism

Chris Hani’s legacy is often reduced to debates about his tragic death in April 1993, but his significance goes beyond South Africa’s democratic transition.

As a car burns behind him, a young South African participates in a civil disturbance outside the Auduza Cemetery. Image credit P Magubane for the UN via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

This year, 2023, marks 30 years since the assassination of comrade Martin Thembisile (known as “Chris”) Hani. His life story and death should always be read within the broader context of South Africa’s political history. He was assassinated during an important era in the early 1990s when society was experiencing a transition toward democratic political rule. There is contestation within historical and political archives about the underlying causes and events that culminated in the fatal shooting. This historical injustice needs to be addressed to give the Hani family, his close comrades, and society at large closure. There can be no meaningful collective closure or reconciliation without truth. As critical legal scholar Tshepo Madlingozi explains: “Without truth, peace, and justice, reconciliation is but a charade. It is true that in most post-transition places there is some semblance of peace; that is there is no civil war or ‘massive’ gross violations of human rights. However, we are talking about liberal peace here.”

Chris Hani’s life history and political legacy are often reduced to debates about his tragic death, with an emphasis on the failures of transitional justice in South Africa. Yet, his contribution to our country’s political history extends way beyond the 1990s democratic transition debates. It started in the mid-20th century with Hani as a student activist, a member of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the armed wing of the ANC) trainee, where he subsequently became commander, and as a member of the South African Communist Party’s (SACP) underground structures.

I want to specifically focus on his contribution to the radical socialist tradition in South Africa. This contribution can be traced back to his participation in the watershed 1962 conference of the SACP, which adopted a new program of political action captured in the document entitledThe Road to South African Freedom.” This document succinctly described the major structural tenets of South Africa’s racial capitalist system, while outlining a vision for transitioning toward a democratic socialist society. Hani’s contribution to the socialist tradition was equally exemplified when he held different political commissar deployments in the ANC-led MK camps and structures in Tanzania, Angola, Mozambique, and Zambia between the late 1960s through the end of the 1980s. 

Hugh Macmillan, the author of the 2014 biography Chris Hani and other books on the liberation struggle, narrates how Hani developed his socialist ideas further through international experiences, such as training programs, exchanges with communist parties from other countries, and by attending international conferences. More importantly, Hani and his comrades had the privilege of witnessing the successes and pitfalls of 20th-century socialist governments, especially in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. They could learn and draw lessons from these countries while linking them to the South African social structure. This appreciation for the connection between socialist theory and actual political praxis was captured in Joe Slovo’s seminal 1989 paper “Has Socialism Failed?” 

Slovo, who was for a long time the effective leader of the SACP in exile, like Hani argued that socialism had been distorted and it was necessary to reclaim it from these perversions. They rejected the narrow statist authoritarian models that characterized most 20th-century socialist societies, as well as the imperial nature of the Soviet Union that contradicted basic socialist political values. But they equally challenged the end of history thesis advanced by capitalist economy advocates. This was captured in Slovo’s concluding remarks: 

We dare not underestimate the damage that has been wrought to the cause of socialism by the distortions we have touched upon. We, however, continue to have complete faith that socialism represents the most rational, just and democratic way for human beings to relate to one another.

Chris Hani expressed similar views in several interviews discussing 20th-century socialism. He was unequivocal about emphasizing the need for renewed democratic socialist practices that permeated different institutions in society, particularly political and economic structures. Hani was quoted in interviews speaking about “born-again socialists and communists committed to political pluralism and multi-party-political systems.”

All-male hostel in Soweto, a black township some ten miles away from Johannesburg, Jan, 1982. Image credit DB for the UN via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There are four main lessons that can be gleaned from Hani’s contribution to South Africa’s socialist tradition. First, a transformative notion of democracy that transcends our current market-led democracy. The country is ranked highly in several international comparative indexes on democracy and civil liberties, such as Freedom House and the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, yet it performs poorly in essential socio-economic and human development indicators. High levels of socio-economic exclusion, poverty, inequality, and uneven spatial development characterize post-1994 South Africa. Unequal race, gender, and class power relations underpin this exclusionary socio-economic structure, which often produces conflict in what sociologist Karl von Holdt describes as a violent democracy.

Hani emphasized that democratizing the economy through different social ownership patterns, extending social redistribution, protecting labor rights and other forms of redress were as salient as protecting political civil liberties. Several experiences from across the globe and internal SACP debates inspired this deeper, transformative, democratic politics embedded in Hani’s outlook. This included social democratic models implemented in countries such as Sweden. I am not suggesting that he was a social democrat, but rather illuminating that democratic control over the economy was central for him. As Hani explained in 1993: 

I think that the ANC will have to fight a new enemy. That enemy would be a struggle to make democracy and freedom worthwhile to ordinary South Africans. Our biggest enemy would be what we do in the field of socio-economic restructuring.

The second lesson is related to the black Marxist or socialist tradition in South Africa. This point is marginalized and overlooked in most accounts of Chris Hani’s life. He is mainly depicted as a revolutionary MK commander who primarily focused on traditional military concerns. Yet, the historical archive contradicts this proposition in several ways. Hani always emphasized political education and theory as cardinal pillars of the struggle. In fact, he stated that military action must always be underpinned by rigorous political education, and challenged any attempts to subordinate political strategic questions to narrow militaristic goals. This observation is salient for contesting dominant socialist historiography, depicting black Marxist leaders as political or military actors, without fully acknowledging their intellectual, agentic contributions to developing socialist thinking in South Africa. 

There are several examples in the archive elucidating black Marxist and socialist leaders’ contributions. In 1934, for example, Moses Kotane’s “Cradock Letter” cautioned against Eurocentrism in South Africa’s socialist movement. He called for the:

Party to become more Africanised or Afrikanised, that the CPSA must pay special attention to South Africa, study the conditions in this country and concretize the demands of the toiling masses from first-hand information, that we must speak the language of the Native masses and must know their demands

Similarly, the scholar, activist and academic Bernard Magubane warned Marxists in South Africa against an “abstract class analysis” because it “liquidates the national question and ignores the crucial differences in the exploitation of black and white workers which are due specifically to racism.” Govan Mbeki’s seminal 1964 work, The Peasants Revolt, equally challenged the SACP’s class analysis and political agency in several ways. It encouraged the party to appreciate how colonialism structured racial capitalism and class formation in ways that are different from European experiences. Mbeki and Kotane’s contributions should be highlighted, as they encouraged the SACP to look beyond the class schema provided in orthodox Marxian literature and political analyses. Other black socialist thinkers, such as Mzala Nxumalo and Neville Alexander, also contributed to developing socialist thinking in South Africa. Their analyses of the co-constitutive relationship between race and capitalist exploitation were foundational for both South African and American racial capitalism theory. Chris Hani’s response in a 1993 interview with Luli Callinicos amplifies this point. He spoke about the “need to yoke together the national and the class struggle,” while recognizing that the priority is “national liberation, the liberation of mostly the blacks, leading to a democratic situation.” 

The third contribution from Chris Hani’s life history and political legacy is his commitment to building mass-based, working-class struggles, led by alliances of unions, civil society organizations, religious groups, youth formations, and political parties. His clandestine work with several politically oriented civil society formations in the 1970s and 1980s is well-documented in the archive. Macmillan explains that “Hani was proud of the liaison work he did in the late 1970s and early 1980s with established trade unions, emerging black trade unions, black consciousness movements, and black civic organizations.” He was equally influenced by what he observed internationally in other liberation struggles, especially in countries such as Vietnam, which emphasized popular legitimacy and support. This was markedly different from the orthodox socialist vanguardism that presents communist parties as the sole bearers of the highest forms of revolutionary knowledge, political theory, and emancipatory ideology. 

This explains why the SACP membership grew exponentially under his leadership in the early 1990s. Macmillan notes that this trend was an outlier as most communist parties around the world were losing membership and leadership rapidly. Hani’s emphasis on building a broad left front is essential for our contemporary political debates. South Africa’s society is experiencing a polycrisis, which, in my view, is attributed to two main systemic structural failures: a market-led neoliberal democracy and delegitimized state institutions. We are experiencing the impacts of economic and social policy shortcomings that limit efforts aimed at democratizing the country’s economy to address past and present socio-economic injustices. The policy directives place primacy on market-led development models, which elevate labor market flexibility, lessening financial exchange controls, privatizing public goods, and decreasing welfare support as core measures for sustained economic development. These policy choices, based on the prescripts of dominant international financial institutions, continue to fail South Africans. They equally coerce governments in less developed countries to adopt rigid macro-economic targets, which focus narrowly on debt containment, attracting private investment, and inflation targeting. We need alternative human rights-centered economic and social policy frameworks, highlighting the following points for transitioning beyond a market-led democracy.

Left-leaning political organizations in the country have not analyzed or responded to this polycrisis adequately. This raises a call for renewing left organizational politics and leadership throughout the country: our fourth lesson. Comrade Chris Hani was one of the leading thinkers in debates about renewing left politics and leadership in order to strengthen the liberation movement. He even extended this contribution to leadership questions in the post-transition era. Historically, this political legacy can be traced back to the fierce advocacy for internal democracy and organizational renewal he led in the ANC and SACP during the 20th century. The content of the Hani Memorandum (1969/1970) and the lack of strategic reflections on the Wankie Campaigns illuminate this point. The demands in both cases spoke about the following essential pillars of renewing left politics: a critical analysis of class fissures in the movement; corruption; abuse of political office; membership control; responsive leadership; and linking political strategy with working class needs. 

Hani’s appetite for self-reflection and criticism was echoed throughout his reflections on the new government during interviews. He repeatedly warned against the ANC-led alliance government becoming a governing party that repeats the mistakes of other liberation movements. In addition, Hani was not afraid to rethink or reconceptualize left ideology or political praxis so it does not become socially and politically obsolete.

Further Reading