Thursday, October 22, 2009

Portrait of a warrior-scholar


Hani: A life Too Short by Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp (Jonathan Ball)

Despite some shortcomings, the latest offering from the Jonathan Ball publishing stable, a biography of famed ANC and South African Communist Party warrior-scholar Chris Hani, is an important piece of work.

Gently narrated by Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp, it is a significant contribution to understanding arguably one of the most celebrated leaders to have come out of that broad and disparate church called the ANC.

It is important to state up front that on this score -- barring some obvious gaps -- Smith and Tromp succeed in giving the reader a beautifully crafted and, at times, powerful narrative on why the former general secretary of the SACP and chief of staff of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) is so revered.

The book is important in the same way that Mark Gevisser’s seminal biography on another former blue-eyed boy of this often-secretive movement, Thabo Mbeki, was. It is no mean feat what Smith and Tromp have managed to produce given the sources with which they had to work.

It is clear that the duo did not necessarily get unfettered access to all the power brokers in the ANC who had the privilege of knowing Hani, especially in his formative years.

Hani’s surviving wife, say the writers, declined to be interviewed for the book. Just as Gevisser gave us a glimpse into Mbeki, one of the most elusive minds to have led the ANC and the country, Smith and Tromp nudge us a bit closer to understanding his nemesis, who, because of his short life, unfortunately could not challenge or emulate Mbeki’s party and state presidencies.

It is worth pointing out that in Gevisser’s
Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred it is apparent that Hani occupies quite a prominent space in the “psycho-political examination” of the leader that is Mbeki, including in his formative years.

Sadly it is in this area of Hani’s life that
Hani: A Life Too Short falls short. The bulk of the first two chapters, ostensibly aimed at giving the reader an understanding of what shaped the man, fail to do this.

We learn only later in the book that Hani was drifting into thoughts of shaping a future South Africa steeped in socialism, and away from the ANC.

Hani, the later chapters convincingly tell us, had been alienated from the ANC once before, in the 1960s, at the end of the Wankie campaign.

The book takes us into Hani’s headspace at that stage, after his languishing in jail in Botswana and coming back to an indifferent ANC leadership, and other events that led to his penning of a wretched memorandum that almost deprived the country of his leadership sooner.

Smith and Tromp take the reader into the atmosphere surrounding the crafting of the memorandum -- particularly scathing of late defence minister and MK chief Joe Modise -- by Hani and other Wankie veterans.

The memorandum shows the gutsy nature of Hani, ruffling the feathers of an exiled ANC leadership that was almost losing the plot. It unleashed a flurry of consequences, one of which saw the young Hani surviving an almost certain death at the hands of the organisation he clearly loved.

The reader is then taken on a journey with Hani as he recovers from the fall-out that led to his being suspended from the ANC -- or, as the book shows, “expelled”, as some claim.

This chapter, a wonderfully crafted tale, debunks some of the myths around the significance of the ANC’s first real battle situation in which Hani led the MK’s celebrated Luthuli detachment alongside the Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army.

It also contextualises why that battle went on to inspire generations of fighters in MK, such as Kebby Maphatsoe, who in the book gives the most powerful account of Hani’s leadership skills in the face of hardships.

It must be said that what precedes this, the opening sequences of the book, are reminiscent of Alexander Pope’s “words are like leaves; and where they most abound, much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found. False eloquence, like the prismatic glass, its gaudy colours spread on every place.”

But by page 33 or so, if you have the gumption to get there (and it is strongly urged that you do), the narrative warms up. Now it’s a case of Pope’s “true expression” as the writers “like the unchanging sun clear and improve whatever they shine on”.

Hani’s Angola years are memorable and contain some of the best accounts of his leadership traits in a time of turmoil. Unfortunately these years also contain some of the question marks that will forever remain about his role in or knowledge of the abuses that took place in ANC camps.

In a manner that also applies to sections of the book that deal with Hani’s death, the writers manage only to gloss over whether Hani played any role in the death of another celebrated MK commander known in ANC circles as Thami Zulu.

Zulu died of suspected poisoning after being released from detention by the feared ANC security wing, Imbokodo, or NAT, and the writers rightly point out that Hani and Modise reportedly were the last two people in contact with Zulu before he died.

As for the book’s pluses, the reader gets a sense of why Hani was the most popular ANC leader after Nelson Mandela after 1990. Also unforgettable is the account given by Hani’s bodyguards on their relationship with a man who was clearly a practical communist.

It would be interesting indeed to know how Hani would have viewed the whole Mercedes-Benz saga surrounding SACP leader and Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimade, who incidentally also tells of a caring Hani in the book.

Hani: A Life Too Short is a part of the annals of this country’s history.
Source: Mail & Guardian Online
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1 comment:

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