At a Crossroads

*

Since a parliamentary messenger stabbed the prime minister to death with a plastic paper knife as he was delivering a ceremonial address, no crime as audacious had been committed in South Africa. Nor had any other evoked such great dismay among the country’s citizens, who were accustomed to violence being the obvious way to settle disputes.

***

This country’s history is a litany of wars, conquests, persecution and rebellion. Crimes marked the trail of the Zulu King Shaka’s warriors, and that of the white settlers who sailed to Africa to escape the persecution threatening them in Europe. After the Afrikaners, as the settlers were called, Africa’s white tribe from Holland, the rapacious British were next to land at the Cape of Good Hope, with their dreams of turning the whole world into provinces of its empire.

Surrendering to the stronger British, the Afrikaners left the Cape of Good Hope and set off on the Great Trek to look for another place to live. They found new homelands, but first they had to take them by force from those who had settled there before them, the Xhosa people, and the valiant Zulus.

Although there would have been enough room there for everyone, no one was willing to yield to anyone else or share anything. The victor took all–the Promised Land was to belong to him alone. They were fighting for power, herds, land, and the treasures it concealed, but also for the right to survive and for freedom. The first independence wars in the whole of Africa were the Boer Wars, fought by the white conquistadors, the Afrikaners, raising mutiny against the British to defend the freedom they had earlier taken from the Zulus, Xhosa, Sotho, and Tswana tribes.

Here, freedom for some always meant slavery for others. One man’s day of triumph was another’s day of mourning. In almost twenty years of travel to South Africa, I’ve seemed to take part there in almost nothing but weddings and jolly sporting events, or funerals filled with grief, but also a desire for revenge.

***

Chris Hani was a rebel. He didn’t believe that the Afrikaners, who had established the apartheid system in South Africa, the utopia of racial separation, in practice racial discrimination, would ever voluntarily renounce their power and privileges. Armed rebellion and violence seemed to him the only way to fight for freedom and justice. Years before, Nelson Mandela, who’d shared Hani’s Xhosa origins, had come to the same conclusion; his call for an armed struggle against apartheid had earned him life imprisonment.

Unlike Mandela, who’d come from a royal clan, Hani was from a poor family. His father did odd jobs in Johannesburg, at gold mines and on building sites, sending money home to his village. His mother was an ordinary village woman who could not read or write. Of six children, three died of poverty-related diseases, a typical fate for very many blacks in South Africa.

Before he rebelled, Chris Hani was a god-fearing, law-abiding Catholic. He served at mass and dreamed of becoming a priest. However, after converting to communism in the Transvaal workers’ hostels, his father knocked that idea out of his head.

At the age of twenty he joined the guerrilla force formed by Mandela, Umkhonto we Sizwe, “Spear of the Nation.” Mandela persuaded the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) that a strategy modeled on Mahatma Ghandi’s passive resistance had no chance of success in South Africa, and that the violence of the white regime should be answered with violence. He secretly went abroad to Algeria and Ethiopia, to be trained as a guerrilla commander. But on his return he was caught and imprisoned for life on Robben Island, off the Cape of Good Hope.

Hani fled the country. He was trained in the USSR’s communist empire, and then neighboring Rhodesia, also under white rule, where the blacks had incited armed rebellion. When the guerrillas won the war and took power in the country, they renamed it Zimbabwe. Gradually, the guerrillas in Mozambique, Angola, and Namibia also gained victory. Not only had the Spear of the Nation failed to win its war, it had not even managed to get it started. Hani’s guerrillas had difficulty getting into the country, not to mention establishing hideouts in the bush or an underground fighting organization in the black townships around Johannesburg or Cape Town. The Spear of the Nation’s only military achievements were a few bomb attacks, in which civilians were killed.

But for the rebellious teenagers of Soweto, Hani was a proud, invincible hero. He fought against the whites, or at least he tried. Locked away in prison, Mandela was nothing but a living legend. They were amazed when, finally set free, he declared that they should make peace with the enemy, and called for patience and moderation. The young people, who had developed a taste for rebellion, smelled the scent of victory and refused to wait for the better tomorrow he was promising. At one of the rallies in Soweto they booed him. “We don’t want reason, we want to fight,” they shouted at Jabulani stadium.

Hani spoke their language, and they listened to him. When the white regime capitulated and abolished the apartheid system, Hani compared himself to King Richard the Lionheart, who came back from the Crusades to find his kingdom plunged into chaos. At the rallies he spoke of the sacrifices they had made and the prize that awaited them. He identified the enemies, threatening them with vengeance, and called for revolution. He became a popular favorite, one of the top black leaders, gearing up to take power.

Some said his fiery radicalism was only a calculated way of controlling the anger of the black rebels. In a conversation with a white journalist friend, Hani admitted that the majority of blacks “did not understand what the bargaining with the white authorities was about.” “They couldn’t see why we were making a deal with our defeated enemies, and delaying announcing our victory,” he said. “Our leaders didn’t sense any danger. We had sat out years of apartheid in prisons and in exile. We didn’t know our own people. We didn’t understand that we were moving too fast, while our people were being left further and further behind.”

However, the white defenders of the old regime regarded Hani as Enemy Number One, the devil incarnate. Successive leaders had persuaded the Afrikaners that under black rule they were at risk of extermination, their country would plunge into violence and lawlessness, and their Promised Land would be seized by the worst people of all, the godless communists. Hani was not just a black radical, but also the leader of the local communists–and he was to be Mandela’s successor.

When in 1992 Hani moved into a luxury villa in Boksburg, a suburb of Johannesburg, his friends told him: “Chris! Why are you doing this? You’re asking for trouble!” When the last white president, Frederik de Klerk, abolished the law prohibiting various races from living in exclusive districts, many of the black leaders moved into areas formerly reserved for whites only. Mandela went to live in Houghton, Johannesburg’s most expensive district.

Boksburg was a conservative area. The locals watched with suspicion as brawny young men from the ANC moved Hani’s furniture into the ground-level villa with a swimming pool. This was unthinkable. A black communist was going to live in the same neighborhood as whites. “I guess something dramatic has to happen for him to realize he isn’t welcome here,” said Andries du Toit, a Boksburg counselor.

In time the neighbors got used to Enemy Number One living among them. At first Hani never went out without an armed bodyguard, but he too stopped regarding his new neighbors as enemies. He felt safe. “We lost our vigilance,” Hani’s close friend Tokyo Sexwale told me some years ago, a man who has been tipped to be the country’s next president.

***

In those days Janusz Waluś was living alone in a bedsit in Arcadia, a quiet district of Pretoria, less than an hour’s drive from Boksburg. Thirteen years younger than Hani, he’d come to South Africa from Poland in 1981. Hani was then in hiding in Lesotho, an independent kingdom situated in the middle of South Africa, where he had formed his guerrilla force.

Janusz’s older brother, Witold Waluś, told me their family came from the eastern borderlands which had once been part of Poland, but were incorporated into the USSR after the Second World War. His ancestors had ended up there as exiles, for their part in the 19th-century armed uprisings against Russia, which along with Prussia and Austria-Hungary had partitioned Poland between them.

Janusz Waluś was born in Zakopane, southern Poland, where his father Tadeusz was living after the war. As a small businessman with roots in the independence movement, he could not spread his wings in a Poland run by communists subservient to Moscow. He quarreled with the jumped-up Party bureaucrats to whom he had to apply for endless permits, and kept moving from city to city, starting over again–in Zakopane, Krakow, Katowice, Tarnów, and finally Radom.

The first to move to South Africa in 1976 were Witold and his mother, Teresa. At the time there were street riots in Soweto, and strikes erupting in Radom. Janusz and their father left for Africa in 1981. The unrest was still going on in Soweto. Meanwhile Poland was undergoing economic collapse; a few months later the communist government would introduce martial law and jail the leaders of Solidarity, post-war Poland’s first independent trade union. “We left to earn a living,” Tadeusz Waluś told me, but his sons insisted they left Poland to escape slavery under the communist regime.

For immigrants from Poland, South Africa in those days must have been like paradise on earth, the Promised Land. The rich, sun-drenched country was the opposite of Poland–grey, poor and with everything in constant deficit. In Poland they had lived in cramped little flats, after long years on a waiting list. In South Africa there were spacious houses ready for them, full refrigerators, and excellently well-paid jobs, reserved for whites only. In Poland the only ticket to a better life was a red Communist Party membership card. In South Africa a better life was guaranteed by having white skin.

In the 1980s, the South African embassy in Vienna was recruiting future citizens for the country. The people with the best chance of getting visas and one-way tickets were those recommended by provincial parish priests, attached to tradition and faith, with anti-communist convictions, but not rebels undermining the existing order.

Counting on cheap government credits, Tadeusz Waluś and his sons built in the Kwa-Kwa homeland the first crystal grinding workshop in all of Africa. However, the business failed, the government never provided any cheap credits, and the Poles sold the firm before they had really got it going. Discouraged, Tadeusz decided to go back to Poland, where communism had just collapsed. Janusz’s wife also decided to return, taking their daughter with her.

But the brothers, Janusz and Witold, had fallen in love with South Africa. Like few other Polish émigrés, they identified with their new fatherland. “It’s stupid to decide to emigrate, but still keep one foot in the old country. That’s like not belonging anywhere,” Janusz told me. “I feel Polish, but now I have a new country, which has taken me in and given me opportunities I never had. It is my duty and right to be part of this society.”

Witold had a detached attitude toward his father’s ideas. He had his own mind, his own family, and his own life. Janusz was entirely under his father’s influence. When Tadeusz went back to Poland, Janusz felt alone in his new country. Tall and muscular, he always took care of his physical condition. In Pretoria he spent his spare time training for karate and judo, and firing a pistol at cans. In Poland he’d driven race cars, and even reached the national championships. “He was capable of imposing iron discipline on himself–he was a bit of a fanatic. Once he made a decision, he went straight for the goal without allowing himself a moment’s weakness,” Witold told me, who took up dealing in army surplus. “He was stubborn, like everyone in our family, and an idealist. He wasn’t suited to business.”

A loner, he didn’t have many friends, or even acquaintances. One of the few people he knew was a much older man called Clive Derby-Lewis, a white MP who headed a foundation recruiting immigrants from Eastern Europe to settle in South Africa. In a way he replaced Janusz’s father as his mentor and spiritual guide.

Derby-Lewis was one of those white politicians who categorically opposed making concessions to the black majority, and regarded its leaders as enemies and criminals, followers of godless communism, which they saw as the greatest evil, a threat to security and the natural order, based on national identity and racial purity. For Derby-Lewis, the white government, which had lifted the ban on the Communist Party, released Mandela from prison and was planning to share power with him, had not just betrayed the Afrikaners, but had condemned them to extermination–they were Africa’s white tribe, who knew from the Bible that they were a chosen nation. Just like Waluś, Derby-Lewis, who was of British descent, was eager for the Afrikaners to accept him as one of them.

Communism had just fallen in its birth place, Russia, and in Eastern Europe. Poland was the first country to gain freedom, and was no longer an alien country. But the Waluś brothers had no intention of going back; by now they regarded themselves as citizens of South Africa, where revolutionary changes were evolving. “It’s all going down the drain, they’ll ruin this wonderful country,” Janusz Waluś kept saying, convinced the rule of the black majority would mean the advent of a communist regime, something he had learned to hate in Poland. “They’ll waste everything it has taken such an effort to build. They say they’re fighting for freedom, but their victory would mean the end of freedom–there’s no freedom under communism. That’s why we left communist Poland and chose South Africa as our new home, because there was no country in the world where communism was so greatly hated.”

Derby-Lewis and his colleagues were wringing their hands. “Everything’s lost, this is the end,” they were saying. But they also said the only thing that could save South Africa from communism was violence, the outbreak of war, which would break off the political bargaining between the white government and Mandela. The war could be triggered by assassinating one of the black leaders, which would ignite the destructive anger of their compatriots from the suburbs of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Then the national army and police would refuse to obey the traitor government, and would seize power, to salvage peace and order – the old order. The man who committed the first murder and set off the apocalypse, would not be cursed, but would be recognized as a savior – he wouldn’t even be punished.

Meeting at Derby-Lewis’ house, they drew up a list of black leaders whose assassination offered the greatest chance of success. Hani’s name was always at the top. “There was a war on, and Hani was an extremely important soldier in it. The fact that we chose him, can be seen as a tribute to him on our part,” explained Derby-Lewis years later. “For us, just as for him, it was about freedom.”

***

[For Christians, Easter Saturday is a time of vigil and mourning, but also hope. It comes the day after Christ’s martyrdom on the cross and the day before His resurrection and redemption.]

Chris Hani had planned nothing but relaxation for the Easter weekend. His wife Limpho and their daughters had gone to visit family in Lesotho. He had stayed at home with their youngest daughter, fourteen-year-old Nomakhwezi. He was going to enjoy some leisure, read the papers, and go to a football match on Easter Sunday–South Africa versus Mauritius. He adored soccer. The day before, he had given his bodyguards the weekend off. On Easter Sunday he went for his daily morning run alone.

When he got home, without changing out of his dark-blue track suit, he drove his daughter to the shops and the hairdresser. On the way home, Nomakhwezi noticed two cars following them–a white one and a red one. The white one passed them as Hani turned off and parked his Toyota on the brick driveway outside the garage. “Dad, someone’s waving to you,” said his daughter, as she ran from the car towards the glazed living room with a view onto the neatly trimmed lawn and the pool.

Hani got out of the car. “Mr. Hani!” he heard. Right behind his car stood a tall, thin white man. As Hani turned around, the stranger took a pistol out of his belt and fired it at him.

The first bullet hit him in the stomach and the second in the head. Hani fell on his back. The killer rapidly stepped up to him, took careful aim, and fired two more shots into his head at close range. Then he turned, got into his car and drove away. When the neighbors came running, alarmed by the shots and Nomakhwezi’s terrified screams, Hani was lying dead in a pool of blood.

They remembered having seen a red Ford a few days earlier in Boksburg, driving round the area in no hurry and to no apparent purpose. Once they had only seen the driver, a man with fair hair, and another time he was with two or three other men. The last time he had been seen there was on Good Friday afternoon.

Retha Harmse, Hani’s neighbor, had seen the murderer. Driving past Hani’s home to go shopping, she had noticed the red Ford braking. Around the corner she realized she had forgotten her purse. By the time she passed Hani’s house again, he was lying on the ground, with the assassin leaning over him, firing the last two shots. Mrs. Harmse remembered the assassin’s face and car registration number.

The police quickly found and arrested the driver of the Ford. They were surprised he was driving so slowly in the middle of the city. On the back seat of the car lay the pistol, still smoking. The driver did not resist arrest or try to escape. That same day it was announced that he was a Polish immigrant called Janusz Waluś.

***

A year after Hani’s murder South Africa held its first free elections. Hani’s block, the ANC, won them, and Mandela became the country’s first black president.

Six months earlier, Janusz Waluś had been sentenced to death, but as the new authorities had decided to depart from the old custom of killing their enemies, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Clive Derby-Lewis was also initially sentenced to death, and then life imprisonment.

***

The day after the ANC’s election victory was announced, I visited Waluś in Pretoria Central prison, passing myself off as his cousin. We talked through a pane of glass in a small room. Right next to us, also through glass, Clive Derby-Lewis was talking to his wife, Gaye.

Waluś regarded Mandela’s victory as a personal disaster. “It’s as if a close relative had died,” he said. Tall and muscular, with strong features, in khaki prison overalls he looked more like a soldier than a prisoner. He spoke in a confident tone, choosing his words carefully and looking me straight in the eye: “If a racist is someone who notices that people come from different races and nations, then yes, I am a racist.” He also told me that he believed killing a man recognized as a threat to security or order can not only be justified, but is necessary. “Violence can be justified,” he put in at the end of the conversation. “But the fight, even if for life or death, must be fought honestly, according to rules known to both adversaries. A bit like in sport.”

***

Three years later, two respected South African newspapers stated that there is plenty of evidence implying that Chris Hani died as the result of a conspiracy organized by his enemies, not just within the incumbent white government, but also within his own party. Police spies had long since informed intelligence officers that an attack on Hani had been discussed at meetings at Derby-Lewis’ house. Shortly before the killing they reported that the assassin would be a Pole. The intelligence agency had passed all this information to the ANC’s security service.

But no one had warned Hani. He had been exposed to the risk of assassination. His party enemies had let the intelligence officers know he had dismissed his bodyguards for the weekend, and stayed at home on his own. They had then dropped the hint to the conspirators, who never realized they were merely the blind instruments of crime.

Bios

Wojciech Jagielski

Wojciech Jagielski (b. 1960) worked as a war correspondent for Poland’s leading independent daily Gazeta Wyborcza for twenty-one years before returning in 2012 to the Polish Press Agency (PAP), where he’d begun his career as a journalist, with plans to focus on analysis and long-form reportage from international conflict zones. He specializes in Africa, Central Asia, the Trans-Caucasus, and the Caucasus. His numerous reports from wars, coups, and rebellions include coverage of the collapse of the Soviet empire, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa. He is the recipient of the Dariusz Fikus Award, one of Poland’s most prestigious awards for excellence in journalism. Three of his books have been translated into English and published by Seven Stories Press: Towers of Stone (2009), The Night Wanderers (2012), and Burning the Grass (forthcoming). His most recent Polish publication, All of Lara’s Wars, tells the story of a Caucasian woman who tried to protect her sons from the danger of radicalization, but failed to stop them from joining the jihad in Syria and dying as martyrs for ISIS.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a full-time translator of Polish literature, and twice winner of the Found in Translation award. She has translated works by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists, including Paweł Huelle and Jacek Dehnel, and by authors of reportage, including Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Jagielski. She also translates crime fiction by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, poetry by Tadeusz Dąbrowski, essays, and books for children (including rhymes by Julian Tuwim and fiction by Janusz Korczak). She is a mentor for the BCLT’s Emerging Translators’ Mentorship Programme, and Co-Chair of the UK Translators Association.

Copyright (c) Wojciech Jagielski, 2010. English translation copyright (c) Antonia Lloyd-Jones, 2015.