Mandela Nelson  London Sch of Econ Poli Sci 2
Nelson Mandela in 2000. Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science

More than twenty years ago, on the very cusp of the post-apartheid era in South Africa, Nelson Mandela may have saved the country from sinking into civil war following the assassination of a prominent and charismatic anti-apartheid leader.

On April 10, 1993 Chris Hani, the 50-year-old chief of both the South African Communist Party and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed branch of the African National Congress (ANC) Party, was shot to death as he stepped out of his car in Boksburg, a suburb of Johannesburg.

His assassin was a Polish immigrant named Janusz Walus who embraced neo-Nazism. It was later revealed that the weapon [a Z-88 pistol] Walus used was provided to him by none other than Clive Derby-Lewis, an MP and member of the right-wing Conservative Party -- which had broken away from the National Party in the early 1980s over fears that the government was easing it’s apartheid policies – as well as the Shadow Minister for Economic Affairs.

At the 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, both Walus and Derby-Lewis (who were sentenced to life in prison after their death sentences were commuted) admitted they wanted to destroy the peace and negotiation process between the government and the ANC of the early 1990s and incite a racial conflict.

The killing shook the very foundations of the surging anti-apartheid movement, leading to many calls from blacks and others for retaliation and even a race war (which, of course, was exactly what the killers wanted). Hani played a prominent role in the negotiations that came in the wake of Mandela’s release from prison – an odyssey that would eventually cause the minority-rule white regime to topple.

The militant Hani was so popular – particularly among the radical youths in the black townships - that he was viewed as Mandela’s probable successor as the leader of the anti-apartheid movement and possible future president of a democratic South Africa, instead of Thabo Mbeki, the man who actually succeeded Mandela.

Two years prior to Hani’s death, an American diplomat based in Pretoria said of him in a cable (later released by Wikileaks): "[Hani] often appears on public platforms in the townships wearing quasi-combat fatigues and delivering fiery speeches that arouse and delight the audience. Many observers believe that Hani would trounce Mbeki if there were a popular vote among ANC supporters.”

Indeed, soon after the murder, Archbishop Desmond Tutu grimly warned: “I fear for our country. Chris Hani, more than anyone else, had the credibility among the young to rein in the radicals."

More than 70 people died in violence sparked by the assassination – but it could have been far worse.

Aside from Walus’ immediate arrest after the murder (which was facilitated by a white Afrikaner woman and neighbor of Hani who called police), Mandela delivered a speech to the nation on television that may have soothed the jagged nerves of many in South Africa by calling for peace, unity and a rejection of violence.

“Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being,” Mandela said. “A white man [Walus], full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster.”

Mandela added: “The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. Our grief and anger is tearing us apart. What has happened is a national tragedy that has touched millions of people, across the political and colour divide.”

But Mandela offered some words of hope and reconciliation. “Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for - the freedom of all of us,” he noted. “Now is the time for our white compatriots, from whom messages of condolence continue to pour in, to reach out with an understanding of the grievous loss to our nation… Now is the time for the police to act with sensitivity and restraint, to be real community policemen and women who serve the population as a whole. There must be no further loss of life at this tragic time. This is a watershed moment for all of us… We must not let the men who worship war, and who lust after blood, precipitate actions that will plunge our country into another Angola.”

Less than two months after the killing of Hani, negotiations between the ANC and the white government led to an agreement, setting the date (April 1994) of South Africa’s first ever free election – or, in other words, the collapse of the apartheid system and the emergence of Mandela as president.

Both Walus and Derby-Lewis remain in prison – their petitions for amnesty was denied by the TRC which ruled that they lied when they claimed they were simply following orders from the Conservative Party to kill Hani. Derby-Lewis also claimed that as a devoted Christian he had to act against Communism, which he called a “vehicle of the anti-Christ.”

Nonetheless, rumors have long circulated that Hani was murdered as a result of a conspiracy by far-right white politicians or by the state’s fearsome security forces.

"[We are] unable to find evidence that the two murderers convicted of the killing of Chris Hani took orders from international groups, security forces or from higher up in the right-wing echelons.”

However, Walus was no patsy; he was a dedicated anti-Communist and committed racialist. “They [the ANC] are Communist and they will destroy this wonderful country,” he said, according to a website that seeks his freedom. “They [ANC] will squander all that was built here by Whites with such difficulty. It pains me that everything here will be destroyed in the name of a multiracial utopia that will never work here. They want freedom and democracy. In a few years freedom and democracy will be all they will have.”

Derby-Lewis is now 77 years old, Walus is 60.