What disappointment! My birthday did not become a public holiday. Not that I expected an announcement to be made on the day itself, but I was surprised two years on that 10 April 1993 never resulted in the day becoming a public holiday in South Africa.
I wrote this article in 2013, inspired by the South African Mail & Guardian headline ‘Chris Hani: life and death of a martyr’. During that same week of April, there had been a headline announcing that Clive Derby-Lewis had been denied parole to live the remainder of his life in his sickbed at home or in hospital. He had to remain in prison. Had his counsel been wise looking for parole in the few weeks leading up to the 20th anniversary of the man’s death he’d been convicted of orchestrating? Who knows? What I do know is that every year on 10 April a headline throws me back to my 21st birthday.
It was a Saturday morning, the weather was rather pleasant for an April day and I was getting ready for the arrival of my boyfriend – now my husband. Home was in the centre of Boksburg, a place which had achieved notoriety a few years before when the council had decided to erect a fence around the lake to prevent Black people from accessing the recreation area. Boksburg’s central business district was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday morning – the East Rand Mall had already begun its pull on the shoppers.
About mid-morning, the peace was shattered by the shrill sirens of police and other emergency vehicles. Something was wrong – the sirens were heading in the wrong direction! We were quite used to sirens heading in the opposite direction indicative of another car accident along Trichard’s Road – the main thoroughfare through the town – but these sirens were going through town in the direction that another fire- and police-station would usually service. Also, these sirens were going on for longer than normal – something BIG must have happened, but what? They were travelling away from what was Jan Smuts Airport (now OR Tambo), so it couldn’t be a plane that had come down.
Dad went to fetch his ‘radio’ – a sophisticated walkie-talkie which linked him to the traffic department because of his work at Boksburg Council. It was all-go. Something monumental had clearly happened, but exactly what remained elusive. Suppressed panic seemed to dominate the voices coming over the air – an expectation of the worst – had a bomb gone off somewhere? We hadn’t heard an explosion. Now, there was a car chase on – a bank robbery? No – the sirens hadn’t stopped in the banking area, they’d gone on through town and faded. Turn the radio up and put the TV on – if it was that big, we should soon have something on 702 the talk radio station or on the news. Yes, there it was! Chris Hani, the leader of the Communist Party had been shot down and killed in his garden in Vosloorus, Boksburg’s Black township. No wonder the suppressed panic – this could mean civil war!
We paced around, wondering what would happen next, knowing we needed to be doing something but not sure what. Not long after, we picked up that an arrest had been made – an Eastern European man, possibly Polish. Whew! This might prevent too much violence erupting. Slowly, over what seemed like the next hour or so, the walkie-talkie quietened down whilst the analysts and public began to discuss the possible consequences of the morning’s activity. I remained restless – what did this mean? How would this tip the scales? Nelson Mandela had been released from prison only two years earlier, coincidently on the day my brother-in-law had his 21st birthday party, and discussions were under-way concerning the forthcoming election in which Blacks and other previously disadvantaged South Africans would be able to vote for the first time. Tensions were high – and although at that time I did not know anything about Chris Hani, I knew enough about the Communist Party and its links to the ANC to realise trouble lay ahead, but to what extent? During the afternoon, news filtered through that the Conservative Party had been involved – this party had roots in Boksburg so I subsequently discovered. Irrespective of the detail, two extremist groups had been thrown into potential open conflict by the actions of a single man pulling the trigger of a gun in a way that no bomb blast had yet managed to do.
Eventually, tensions began to subside, but not until an almost national audible sigh followed a call by Mandela for the maintenance of law and order and no retribution.
Apparently, I had a party that evening. I am not one to celebrate my birthday but given the significance of 21 years, I had succumbed to having people around – I seem to recall dancing in the garage, but these thoughts have only surfaced whilst writing this account. For years, I had even forgotten we had celebrated my birthday – it was only a few years back when reminiscing about 10 April 1993 that my husband brought that long buried memory back into consciousness.
Not long after, I forget exactly when, Clive Derby-Lewis was arrested for being the mastermind behind the assassination.
A year after the assassination of Chris Hani, on 27 April 1994, South Africans went to the polls for the first time as a whole nation. What a day! It was the first election I was eligible to vote in and there was such an overwhelming turnout that voting was extended to the 28th. I remember standing in the voting queue thinking ‘surely these people are not going to occupy our house tomorrow’ – they’re too happy and much like me. Oh, how the propaganda wheel turns! Again, Nelson Mandela came to the rescue imploring the population to remain peaceful and that better quality housing would be supplied in due course.
My relationship with Chris Hani, having been on hold for a year, now began again as I sat in the window box of an office overlooking the Carlton Centre in central Johannesburg – it was the only way I could get to see my boyfriend who was working for the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) overseeing the elections. This particular day, I accompanied him to the IEC offices and whilst he got on with his work, I sat and studied (as any diligent student would!). Towards evening, I decided to read and perched in the window soaking up the last of the day’s sun, I opened a thin green biography of Chris Hani. It seemed an opportune time to find out about this man whose death could well have resulted in a very different scenario to that which was about to unfold.
About 7pm that evening, a buzz started to permeate throughout the office and ears pricked up to catch what was emanating from the TV which seemed to be on every hour of the day: FW de Klerk had conceded power and Nelson Mandela was the new President of South Africa. He would be making an announcement from the front of the Carlton Centre that night. From my window-box position, I soon became aware of movement outside 22 floors below. People were streaming across the road from all directions. Although I couldn’t see the front of the Carlton Centre, it was clear that a huge crowd had arrived and feint sounds of singing filtered up to where I sat. We relied on the TV to fill in the gaps.
But, a new challenge presented itself – how were we to get home? Our car was parked on the other side of the Carlton Centre and to get to it we would need to cross the paths of the revellers – the election propaganda playing full havoc with our thoughts. How would the crowd take to two white faces at a time like this? We waited for the crowds to disperse and rather than walk along the street, we cut through the Carlton Centre where we soon came face to face with a single Black man walking towards us and waving an ANC flag – what would happen? What should we do? What were our options? He continued towards us… All of a sudden, a broad grin erupted across his face, his unoccupied arm flew fist-like into the air accompanied by the shout ‘Amandla! Viva!’ I think we instinctively joined in with the Viva, but I couldn’t be sure – what I am sure of though, was the huge sense of relief and infectiousness of his joyous reaction. I consciously thought ‘it’s going to be ok’. And it was and has been.
So, I hear you ask, what did I get for my 21st birthday? I can’t name anything physical, but my present lives on in the privileged experience opened up to me by the man killed on my 21st birthday. On a personal level, I have an inextricable link to South Africa’s national history and experiences which have cemented an open-minded and reconciliatory approach to my study of the past in a way I don’t think I would otherwise have. My 21st birthday, the birth of my adult-hood and Hani-inspired political awareness, coincided with the birth of a united South Africa, albeit the onset of labour pains, and together, despite life’s ups and downs, we have both grown in confidence and maturity.
As South Africa approaches its 21st year as a ‘democratic country’, it would do well to look back on those tense days and how individual and petty differences were set aside to achieve a greater good. Chris Hani’s death would not then have been in vain.