The bullets from the Z88 pistol that Janusz Walus pumped into Chris Hani almost triggered a full-blown race war in the dying days of the old South Africa.
Even though the law is the law, it is hard to stomach that a man filled with such hatred can now be freed 23 years later to continue a normal life in the new South Africa.
It is especially hard for all those South Africans who heeded president-in-waiting Nelson Mandela’s urgent plea not to retaliate against right wingers intent on crushing the dream of a new South Africa.
The anger on the streets was palpable over the Easter weekend in 1993 when I, as a young reporter, passed through a crowd of mourners before entering Hani’s home in Boksburg. The day before, Walus had fired four shots at Hani, killing him.
Mandela went on national TV to urge white and black South Africans to mourn as one nation and stand together “against those who … wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us”.
In true reconciliatory spirit, Mandela said that, while a “white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster”, it was a “white woman, of Afrikaner origin, [who] risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin”.
Walus did not secure a get out of jail free card following his application before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In 1999, the commission found that his evidence was contradictory and he had failed to make a full disclosure.
In his recent parole application in the North Gauteng High Court, his lawyer argued that he should be freed because South Africans believed in ubuntu.
“We have the TRC, which other countries did not have. We need love, not hate,” he said.
Opposing the application, Advocate Marumo Moerane SC raised the point that Sirhan Sirhan, who killed US Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, had spent 43 years in prison and was recently denied parole for the 15th time.
Plans are under way to appeal the ruling. But if the decision is not challenged, it will be ironic that Walus will be freed into the new South Africa that he tried so hard to prevent.
And he has the new South Africa to thank for being alive at all. After capital punishment was declared unconstitutional in 1995, the death sentences he and co-conspirator Clive Derby-Lewis received were commuted to life in jail.
Heard is Media24 parliamentary editor