Assassin of Mandela's likely successor to walk streets of the democratic South Africa for the first time

On the afternoon of the 10th April, 1993 anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani pulled up out outside his home in Boksburg, a quiet suburb of Johannesburg. As he stepped out of his car he was unaware that he was being watched. "I tucked my Z-88 pistol into the back of my trouser belt and got out of my car," Hani's assassin, Polish neo-Nazi immigrant Janusz Walus, recalled some years later. "I didn't want to shoot him in the back. I called, 'Mr Hani'. When he turned, I drew my pistol from the belt and shot him in the stomach. As he fell, I shot a second bullet into his head. When he fell on the ground, I shot him again twice behind the ear." Hani died instantly.

At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1997, Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis, the other man sentenced for Hani's murder, admitted their intent: to provoke a race war and derail a negotiation process that would inevitably lead to the end of white minority rule. But their plan backfired and ironically it was Hani's assassination that accelerated the then faltering progress towards a democratic South Africa.

Almost twenty three years after he killed Chris Hani, Pretoria's High Court ruled this week that Walus, whose death sentence was commuted to a sentence of life imprisonment in 1995, should be released on parole within the next 15 days.

Chris Hani was one of the anti-apartheid movement's most charismatic leaders and Mandela's likely future heir. "[He] often appears on public platforms in the townships wearing quasi-combat fatigues and delivering fiery speeches that arouse and delight the audience," wrote a Pretoria-based US diplomat in a confidential 1991 cable released by Wikileaks in 2013. "Many observers believe that Hani would trounce Mbeki if there were a popular vote among ANC supporters," the communique continued. But, unfortunately, that theory was never given the chance to prove itself.

Hani was an important player in the delicate negotiation process that had progressed in fits-and-starts since Mandela's release in 1990, and - at the time of Hani's death - was on the verge of a significant breakthrough. Walus, had gone to Boksburg to in the hope that killing Hani would create nationwide anger and violence which would inevitably scupper ensure that this breakthrough did not happen. And the plan almost worked.

As former head of the African National Congress's (ANC) armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, Hani commanded huge support among the "young lions" in the townships. "I fear for our country," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the time of his murder. "Chris Hani, more than anyone else, had the credibility among the young to rein in the radicals."

What stopped South Africa descending into civil war after the assassination was down to a combination of factors. Firstly, arresting Walus within hours of the murder helped to dispel some of the suspicions that the hit had been planned by the South African security forces. Most important, however, was a televised address to the nation that same evening by Nelson Mandela. In it, Mandela appealed to black and white South Africans to stand together against, "the men who worship war" and, "move forward to what is the only lasting solution for our country - an elected government of the people, by the people and for the people".

Despite the violence following Hani's death, which ended up claiming more than 70 lives, the country didn't slip into a race war. Although still a significant death toll, it is perhaps a fraction of the number who no doubt would have died had it not been for Mandela and the ANC's call for restraint.

Ironically, the assassination had the opposite effect of that intended by Walus and Derby-Lewis. Instead of leading to an explosion of violence, Hani's murder demonstrated to white South Africa that only the ANC leadership could hold the country together. Rather than scuppering negotiations, the process was sped up and, on the 1st of June - just seven weeks after Hani's death - the Negotiating Council agreed that the 27th of April, 1994 would be the date of South Africa's first ever non-racial democratic elections.

Twenty-three years on, the question of how different South Africa might have looked had Hani lived still floats above the Rainbow Nation, as do questions of what Hani would have made of the country today. "The days of Sisulu, Tambo, Mandela, Mbeki, Slovo and Hani are over," reads another Wikileaked US cable from 2008 assessing the prospects of the ANC government. "Without a strong, intellectual centre, the party probably will struggle and become vulnerable to the phenomenon of the 'cult of personality' and access to state patronage."

It's not clear whether Hani would have stayed in politics had he lived, and - if he had - whether he would have beaten Thabo Mbeki in a race to succeed Mandela to the presidency. Whatever his decision, Hani would undoubtedly have been an energetic part of the post-apartheid nation-building process that transformed South African institutions and implemented one of the world's most progressive constitutions, all supported by an independent judiciary and a free press.

Shortly before he was killed, Hani was asked by an interviewer if he had ministerial ambitions: "The perks of a new government are not really appealing to me," he said. "What is important is the continuation of the struggle... what we do for social upliftment of the working masses of our country."

Walus' imminent release has reopened old wounds. Throughout his decades in prison neither he nor Derby-Lewis expressed remorse for their actions and the Hani family have consistently opposed the granting him parole. The ANC responded with a statement criticising the court's decision saying it was "devoid of any appreciation of the devastating impact the murder of Comrade Chris had, not only on the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, but South Africa as a whole."

Despite these protests, it seems inevitable that, within a fortnight, the man who robbed the country of one of its outstanding leaders and almost sparked a civil war, will step onto the streets of the democratic South Africa for the first time.

Stefan Simanowitz was working for the ANC at the time of Chris Hani's assassination.

This article contains materially that was originally published in Chris Hani: Voices of liberation (2015, HSRCpress)