The intellectual soldier

2009-10-28 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Hani: A Life Too Short

Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp

Jonathan Ball

THE subtitle of this book sums up his biographers’ quandary: Martin Tembisile (Chris) Hani was a significant political figure, but did not live long enough to ­exercise power. Not knowing what he would have done with it, his bio­graphy inevitably ends with a notional question mark.

Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp, journalists on the Star, argue that before his murder in April 1993, Hani was preaching peace and was acutely worried about the criminal potential of township self-defence units. He had apparently abandoned the concept of a vanguard communist party and was leaning towards social democracy.

Hani emerges from this book as courageous and principled, a well­educated man of the people, a seeker of socioeconomic justice committed to nonracialism and uninterested in personal power. His reputation was built on the romantic concept of the intellectual soldier: had he lived, South African politics would probably have moved to a different dynamic.

Yet he was in some ways an African National Congress outsider. Political commissar of the Luthuli Detachment in what Oliver Tambo described as the heroic failure of the 1967 Wankie campaign, he spent time in a Botswana jail. Embittered by the disdain of the ANC establishment towards the few survivors, he produced a damning and prophetic memorandum denouncing fossilised, incompetent leadership; the careerism and opportunism of dubious characters; and nepotism, shady businesses and flashy cars. It could have been written yesterday.

He was lucky to escape with his life at the hands of Mbokodo, the ANC’s vicious and neurotic security department, and was exiled from the movement for a while. His greatest success was the operation run from Lesotho in the eighties that made him a prime target for apartheid’s security forces.

Hani was something of an antiestablishment figure who knew full well the methods of Mbokodo. But his biographers are unconvincing about his inaction during the Angolan camp atrocities. Nor do they explain why a man of political insight should team up with an already disgraced Winnie Mandela. And they avoid — probably wisely — the possibility that his assassination was an inside job.

This is a book of uneven quality. It makes sweeping, unsupported statements, regularly resorts to purple prose of comical dimensions (“the light tremulous with expectation”) and is occasionally slipshod (the population of Kabwe is nowhere near 1,6 million). For the moment it will do. But in the long run, Hani deserves better.

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