Biography of Martin Thembisile (Chris) Hani, South African Activist

Chris Hani
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Chris Hani (born Martin Thembisile Hani; June 28, 1942–April 10, 1993) was a charismatic leader in the African National Congress (ANC) militant wing (uMkhonto we Sizwe or MK) and the secretary-general of the South African Communist Party. Considered a threat to both the extreme-right wing in South Africa and the new, moderate leadership of the African National Congress, his assassination had a significant impact on his country's transition from apartheid.

Fast Facts: Martin Thembisile (Chris) Hani

  • Known For: South African activist, chief of staff of uMkhonto we Sizwe, and secretary-general of the Communist Party whose assassination was pivotal in South Africa's transition from apartheid
  • Also Known As: Chris Hani
  • Born: June 28, 1942 in Comfimvaba, Transkei, South Africa
  • Parents: Gilbert and Mary Hani
  • Died: April 10, 1993 in Dawn Park, Boksburg, South Africa
  • Education: Matanzima Secondary School at Cala, Lovedale Institute, University of Fort Hare, Rhodes University
  • Published WorksMy Life
  • Spouse: Limpho Hani
  • Children: Nomakhwezi, Neo, and Lindiwe
  • Notable Quote: "My studies of literature further strengthened my hatred of all forms of oppression, persecution and obscurantism. The action of tyrants as portrayed in various literary works also made me hate tyranny and institutionalised oppression."

Early Life

Martin Thembisile (Chris) Hani was born on June 28, 1942 in the small, rural town of Comfimvaba, Transkei. He was the fifth of six children. His father, a migrant worker in the Transvaal mines, sent what money he could back to the family in Transkei. His mother worked on a subsistence farm to supplement the family income.

Hani and his siblings walked 25 kilometers to school each weekday and the same distance to church on Sundays. Hani was a devout Catholic and became an altar boy at the age of 8. He wanted to become a priest, but his father would not give him permission to enter the seminary.

Education and Politicization

When Hani was 11 years old, the South African government introduced the Black Education Act of 1953. The act formalized the segregation of Black schooling and laid the foundation for "Bantu Education" and Hani, at a young age, became aware of the limitations that the apartheid system imposed on his future: "[T]his angered and outraged us and paved the way for my involvement in the struggle."

In 1956, at the start of the Treason Trial, he joined the African National Congress (ANC)—his father was already a member of the ANC. In 1957 he joined the ANC Youth League. One of his teachers at school, Simon Makana, may have influenced this decision.

Hani matriculated from Lovedale High School in 1959 and went to university at Fort Hare to study modern and classical literature in English, Greek, and Latin. Hani is said to have identified with the plight of Roman commoners suffering under the control of its nobility. Fort Hare had a reputation as a liberal campus, and it was here that Hani was exposed to the Marxist philosophy that influenced his future career.

The Extension of University Education Act (1959) put an end to Black students attending white universities (mainly the Universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand) and created separate tertiary institutions for "Whites," "Coloured," "Blacks," and "Indians." Hani was active in campus protests over the takeover of Fort Hare by the Department of Bantu Education. He graduated in 1962 from Rhodes University in Grahamstown with a Bachelor's degree in classics and English, just ahead of being expelled for political activism.

Exploring Communism

Hani's uncle had been active in the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The organization was founded in 1921 but had dissolved itself in response to the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. Ex-Communist Party members had continued to operate in secret and then formed the underground South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1953.

In 1961, after a move to Cape Town, Hani joined the SACP. The following year he joined uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the militant wing of the ANC. With his high level of education, he quickly rose through the ranks; within months he was a member of the leadership cadre, the Committee of Seven.

Arrest and Exile

In 1962, Hani was arrested for the first of several times under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1963, having tried and exhausted all the possible legal appeals against conviction, he followed his father into exile in Lesotho, a small country landlocked within South Africa.

Hani was sent to the Soviet Union for military training and returned to Africa in 1967 to take an active role in the Rhodesian bush war, acting as a political commissar in the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA).

Work With Zipra

ZIPRA, under the command of Joshua Nkomo, operated out of Zambia. Hani was present for three battles during the "Wankie Campaign" (fought in the Wankie Game Reserve against Rhodesian forces) as part of the Luthuli Detachment of combined ANC and Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) forces.

Although the campaign provided much-needed propaganda for the struggle in Rhodesia and South Africa, in military terms it was a failure. The local population frequently informed on guerrilla groups to the police. In early 1967, Hani made a narrow escape into Botswana, only to be arrested and detained in prison for two years for weapons possession. Hani returned to Zambia at the end of 1968 to continue his work with ZIPRA.

Rising in the ANC, MK, and the SACP

In 1973 Hani transferred to Lesotho. There, he organized units of the MK for guerrilla operations in South Africa. By 1982, Hani had become prominent enough in the ANC to be the focus of several assassination attempts, including at least one car bomb.

He was transferred from the Lesotho capital of Maseru to the center of the ANC political leadership in Lusaka, Zambia. That year he was elected to the membership of the ANC National Executive Committee, and by 1983 he had been promoted to political commissar of the MK, working with student recruits who joined the ANC in exile after the 1976 student uprising.

When dissident ANC members, who were being held in detention camps in Angola, mutinied against their harsh treatment in 1983–1984, Hani had a part in the uprisings' suppression. Hani continued to rise through the ANC ranks and in 1987 he became the chief of staff of the MK. During the same period, he rose to senior membership of the SACP.

Return to South Africa

After the unbanning of ANC and SACP on February 2, 1990, Hani returned to South Africa and became a charismatic and popular speaker in townships. By 1990 he was known to be a close associate of Joe Slovo, the secretary-general of the SACP. Both Slovo and Hani were considered dangerous figures in the eyes of South Africa's extreme right: the Afrikaner Weerstandsbewging (AWB, Afrikaner Resistance Movement) and the Conservative Party (CP). When Slovo announced that he had cancer in 1991, Hani took over as secretary-general.

In 1992, Hani stepped down as chief of staff of uMkhonto we Sizwe to devote more time to the organization of the SACP. Communists were prominent in the ANC and the Council of South African Trade Unions, but were under threat—the collapse of the Soviet Union in Europe had discredited the movement worldwide.

Helping the SACP Rise

Hani campaigned for the SACP in townships around South Africa, seeking to redefine its place as a national political party. It was soon doing well—better than the ANC in fact—especially amongst the young. The youth had no real experiences of the pre-apartheid era and no commitment to the democratic ideals of the more moderate Mandela and his cohort.

Hani is known to have been charming, passionate, and charismatic and he soon attracted a cult-like following. He was the only political leader who seemed to have influence over the radical township self-defense groups that had parted from the authority of the ANC. Hani's SACP would have proved a serious match for the ANC in the 1994 elections.


On April 10, 1993, as he returned home to the racially mixed suburb of Dawn Park, Boksburg near Johannesburg, Hani was assassinated by Janusz Walus, an anti-Communist Polish refugee who had close links to the white nationalist AWB. Also implicated in the assassination was Conservative Party member of parliament Clive Derby-Lewis.


Hani's death came at a critical time for South Africa. The SACP had been on the brink of attaining significant status as an independent political party, but it now found itself bereft of funds (due to the Soviet collapse in Europe) and without a strong leader—and the democratic process was faltering. The assassination helped persuade the bickering negotiators of the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum to finally set a date for South Africa's first democratic election.

Walus and Derby-Lewis were captured, sentenced, and jailed shortly after the assassination—within six months. Both were sentenced to death. In a peculiar twist, the new government (and constitution) that they had actively fought against, caused their sentences to be commuted to life imprisonment because the death penalty had been ruled unconstitutional.

In 1997 Walus and Derby-Lewis applied for amnesty through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings. Despite their claims that they were working for the Conservative Party, and therefore the assassination had been a political act, the TRC effectively ruled that Hani had been assassinated by right-wing extremists who were apparently acting independently. Walus and Derby-Lewis are currently serving their sentence in a maximum-security prison near Pretoria.


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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Biography of Martin Thembisile (Chris) Hani, South African Activist." ThoughtCo, Jan. 24, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, January 24). Biography of Martin Thembisile (Chris) Hani, South African Activist. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Biography of Martin Thembisile (Chris) Hani, South African Activist." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).