In last week’s session on South African History in the Digital Age, we discussed two digital projects which focused on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. Our discussions about how the legacy of Madiba have been constructed over time were really helpful for me in terms of thinking about how the struggle against apartheid has been portrayed in historical narratives.
The conversation also turned to the conditions under which Madiba became the mythological figurehead of the struggle. What coincidental (or intentional) turn of events allowed for his ascent to this iconic status? We were challenged to think about what would have happened to Mandela’s legacy if he had been hanged, as was feared, at the conclusion of the Rivonia trial. Would he, like Thami Mnyele (profiled in Diana Wylie‘s Art and Revolution), have gone underground, died in exile, and have to be rescued from obscurity twenty years after the fact? Or would he have attained a martyrdom like that of Stephen Bantu Biko, beaten to death in a detention cell so that his ideals could live on? Or would he have been like scores of other struggle fighters who have simply faded into the background of the struggle narrative? The numerous what-ifs can be dizzying, but also extremely unproductive, but they do call into stark contrast how Mandela’s legacy and iconography has surpassed and even muted the contributions of other struggle leaders.
This line of thought made me think about Thembisile “Chris” Hani, South African Communist Party member and commander of Umkhonto We Sizwe (the armed wing of the African National Congress). While Hani has been remembered, especially within South Africa, he certainly never attained the same status as Madiba on the world stage. In many ways, however, he and Madiba tracked similar trajectories, though with some notable differences. Whereas Madiba began his career with communist leanings and later moved from them, Hani was a staunch communist throughout his political career, moving up the ranks of the SACP as he simultaneously moved through the ranks of Umkhonto weSizwe. He was, like Madiba, arrested and imprisoned, but never for nearly so long nor so publicly. He sacrificed a good portion of his life, like Madiba and so many other anti-apartheid leaders, in pursuit of the struggle. But, very unlike Madiba, just as his star was beginning to shine brightly in the light of post-apartheid politics, he was assassinated.
Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of Hani’s brutal assassination by Januzs Walus in April 1993. At the time, his assassination marked a major turning point in the transition to democracy, with Madiba taking the opportunity to use this tragedy as a way to stress the need for a multiracial democracy. Now, Hani is used as a call to arms to continue to make progress towards a better life for all South Africa. This was evidenced at an April 2013 wreath-laying ceremony, held in the Johannesburg cemetery where Hani was buried. The stars of South African politics turned out to pay their respects, with President Jacob Zuma delivering a speech to honor Hani.
We must hasten to usher in the type of society comrade Chris lived and died for. We must honour the memory of comrade Chris by developing a better life for all, that he believed in.
This statement brings to mind Benjamin Fogel’s thoughts about the use of Madiba’s legacy by the ANC.
It’s a tale that provides cover for capital and locks the political imagination of South Africa into an understanding of politics in terms of an eternal present, rather than allowing for the urgent duty of reimagining alternatives and engaging once more in the tradition of mass tradition which freed Mandela in the first place. Mandela shows us that individual courage, collective solidarity and revolutionary commitment can bring about change, but at the same time South Africa’s liberation struggle is far from complete.
Fogel’s words above could just as easily be used to describe how Hani’s legacy was used by the ANC on the anniversary of his death; calling to the public to adhere to a vision for South Africa’s future based on some amorphous notion of Hani’s ideals. We have already seen, and most likely will continue to see, this kind of manipulation of Mandela’s political legacy, as Fogel powerfully argued. The struggle and its leaders (many of whom that are still with us) still linger in South Africa’s immediate political memory, tempting politicians to invoke simplistic ideals from political leaders who would wince at the contortions of their lifetime of political thought and work.
In examining the legacies of these individuals, digital or otherwise, the example of Chris Hani demonstrates the importance of maintaining a grounding in the individuals themselves, as opposed to the legacy that is constructed, and at times manipulated, in their honor. So, when we remember these leaders, let’s do what we can (through educating ourselves and others) to remember the figures themselves, not one of their many constructed legacies.