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Leadership in Question part 11: The personal and the political in Chris Hani’s leadership


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Leadership in Question part 11: The personal and the political in Chris Hani’s leadership

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje/New Frame
Raymond Suttner

8th February 2021

By: Raymond Suttner


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We live in a time when a movement once devoted to the wellbeing of all, has become callous. That contempt for the welfare of others is diffused through much of society. Health materials intended to save the lives of people struck down by Covid-19 and for those who provide healthcare, have been stolen or inadequate products have been provided as a result of fraud. This has led to inadequate care of patients and vulnerability and death of heathcare workers. This is just one element of the turn to greed instead of mutual solidarity that once held considerable sway in the ANC and its allies and among significant sections of our population.

Chris Hani cared about all human beings and related in a sensitive way to those with whom he interacted, especially his comrades, from the highest to the lowest. He was willing to interact with a wide range of people but had a special connection with the workers and the poor, from whom he came. There were often long queues waiting to speak to him and it would irritate some of his comrades because he would see them all, not just those in MK but all who had a problem they wanted to discuss with him.


He was a tough soldier who went into battle, but also tender and compassionate, concerned about other people, not just as soldiers but as rounded human beings with vulnerabilities and complex emotions, that he tried his best to understand.

Hani may be the closest we have had to a Che Guevara, but when Guevara writes about “revolutionary love” he speaks mainly about “love for the people”. Hani had plenty of that, but he also cared about others as individual human beings with specific personality traits, strengths and weaknesses. I am not saying that Che lacked such skills, just that he has not expressed it in that which I have read by and about him.


The testimony we have about Hani as a leader stresses that he was highly concerned about the personal. He valued the military training and political education that MK soldiers received, but he broadened the conception of what it meant to be “militarily ready” in order to implement the concept of MK as a people’s army.

This meant that the hierarchies of the military were immediately and continually contested, not in the sense of denying the need for lines of command, but by the way Hani conducted himself. He believed that there had to be commands, but these had to be part of a respectful and empowering relationship between those at all levels, not an inevitable and inflexible, unmediated top-down communication of orders.

Some of the qualities that are remarked on about Hani were not exclusively found in him. It has been noted in previous contributions that Oliver (OR) Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, to name just three leading figures, used to listen carefully to anyone with whom they engaged.

What marked Tambo and Mandela as attorneys, distinct from the conventional legal firm, is that they did not try to abridge what their clients told them about their hardships and steer their account of the grievances they voiced to what would interest a court. Conventionally when a client deals with an attorney the attorney has to bear in mind what part of their account will stand the test of legal relevance or become part of what is called “the facts in issue”. Consequently, clients are sometimes cut short or urged to restrict themselves to a particular time frame, and not necessarily raise the entire history of a grievance or dispute. This was because of the bounds of legal relevance. But Mandela and Tambo as attorneys listened and learnt beyond what was needed for any particular case. This was because of their empathy and concern for the oppression experienced by black South Africans under apartheid that included but transcended their role as lawyers.

Walter Sisulu had these qualities but also caution, a concern to avoid acting out of anger, but to assess all the factors in any situation, no matter if that delayed what one did. The Rivonia Trial attorney, Joel Joffe, remarks on the deference accorded to Sisulu’s views, on the part of all the other prisoners, and claims that over time the legal team found themselves in a similar relationship, waiting to hear and deferring to his view on particular matters. (Martin Meredith, Nelson Mandela, p. 255.)

The young Mandela tended to be impetuous and that did not simply disappear as he grew older, and the greatness of Mandela that is now celebrated was substantially related to the restraining influence of Sisulu, who acted as a check and set an example of listening carefully and acting without haste (though some situations obviously made speed essential.)

This is how former Platoon Commissar Dipuo Mvelase expressed Hani’s quality as a leader, that went beyond listening:

“I think more than anything else, and this is what made Comrades Chris different, because normally when you relate with leaders, or with people called experienced revolutionaries, people who have been long in the struggle, you expect a situation where you listen.

“They talk. They are supposed to have all the answers, but with Comrade Chris, it was different inasmuch as he would talk, but he listened. And he shared his views, without necessarily saying he's giving you answers.

“And at the end after discussing a problem with him, you feel you both came up with a solution. He didn't give you answers. He made you discover certain things about yourself. The best, and probably some of your weaknesses, without necessarily saying so, but by discussing with him. Things become clearer without him giving you answers. He helped you find answers yourself. And I think this is what was different about him. Because normally leaders think they can give answers, but with Comrade Chris, his way of doing things, was kind of saying, we all have answers.” (D Mvelase Interview, 1993).

Hani empowered young people to speak their minds and despite the context of military hierarchies, to fight for their rights, thereby problematising the downward communication of what had to be done.

But Hani was not simply interested in military and political matters. He wanted to hear everything about the soldiers, where they came from, their family or friends or comrades they left behind in South Africa.

The military is a male space par excellence. It is a place that one has come to associate with men barking out commands. It is generally conceived as a space for bravery by men. Hani’s empowering soldiers to speak their minds encouraged women to contest gender inequality in MK, a topic to which I will return in a later contribution.

Hani was interested in the whole person, not just how well the soldier handled weaponry or their comprehension of political theory. For those who were involved in the liberation Struggle there tended to be a sense that a revolution is such a big and important thing that there is no space for the human person. The specific qualities of the individual tend to be lost. But Hani made sure that the human element was not lost:

“[I]n the brief relationship which embraced… less than 10 years one had with Comrade Chris, I have never had contact with such a leader, such a comrade. Where you feel you can say anything and not feel bad about it, whether it’s personal or whether it’s about the Struggle. Anything, anything. Someone you could confide in, probably say certain things that I couldn’t even say to my mum. At the best of times, you could talk to Comrade Chris. And, ja… given my first experience in the army amongst the first persons we met during the eastern front war against Unita - the only leader who was there during that battle was Comrade Chris. This attention to all of us was despite the fact that everybody needed his attention because he was the commander in the area.” (Mvelase interview).

He ate the same, sometimes rotten food as the rest of the soldiers, even though it would have been easy for him as an officer to have had a chicken or something much better provided for him to eat.

Hani made them feel that even though they were in a life-and-death struggle, their personal anxieties and concerns were part of what concerned MK.

“Then we had about two to three hundred new recruits. But he spent every single evening talking to us. And you felt wanted, you felt at home. You felt important, you know. Asking you about your family, how you feel, what is your experience, do you miss home? [These were] questions that you thought you wouldn’t be asked because we are in a revolution. In the revolution, you as a person, you get lost. But Comrade Chris made sure that you don’t get lost. You don’t become part of a mass of revolutionaries where you are expected to take home certain things and you are forgotten as a person.

“And I mean those are some of the things that when one thinks about Comrade Chris - he humanised the struggle, you know. He made every one of us feel we count. We matter - which is something that one never experienced, even before one left the country or when you just came into the Struggle because there are those big expectations that revolutionaries have to do this - have to sacrifice that. And that revolutionaries are human beings, are ordinary people - one never felt that until I met Comrade Chris and ja… you can imagine losing such a person, what it means.” (Mvelase interview).

As indicated, this form of leadership created a tension with conventional notions of hierarchy in the army. The late General Sipho Binda remarks how he and other officers initially thought Hani was naïve, because “there can be no equality in the army!”

“Bra Chris was not to be cowed nor discouraged by inertia or sheer reluctance to change. He was not mincing his words. He wanted to transform MK into a real people’s army.” (Sipho Binda, Notes on the life of Comrade Chris, unpublished, 1993).

But how did this approach impact on commands that needed to be issued and executed in a war situation, I asked Dipuo Mvelase?

 “Ja. I mean Comrade Chris was a soldier and then he issued orders. In my experience there was no situation where they were defied. And when those orders needed to be issued, they were issued. But, on the other hand, he didn’t treat soldiers as objects that need to implement orders that have been decided by brilliant officers. He made sure that you own that kind of situation, you feel it is important for you to do it. He made you feel important to do that particular thing inasmuch as an order needs to be implemented, but it’s also important that it be implemented because its important in terms of the whole Struggle.”

How Hani briefed soldiers entering the country

Mvelase again explains how Hani’s briefings differed from those of others, because it was more to do with the individual and his or her readiness than with the details of the mission:

“This was because he would ask you questions that ‘are you really ready?’ And some people find themselves that they are not really ready to come into the country, but they are scared because they will be called cowards. They will be called less revolutionary and Comrade Chris played an important role in making you feel that if you are not ready it doesn’t mean you are less revolutionary. It doesn’t mean you are less of a soldier; it doesn’t mean you are a coward.

“You can still make a contribution and to win this war it doesn’t mean you have to be in the country. … And Comrade Chris used to be more concerned about you succeeding, you fighting so that you can fight tomorrow. Not you fighting and making a sacrifice and be put in the heroes’ book. The life of each and every soldier used to be very important to him. And I think that’s why he used to have those discussions with soldiers when they came into the country. ‘Do you think you are ready? Are there things that are personal that you think you need to sort out?’ Because his view was that if you go home with the baggage of certain personal problems that are not resolved, that are not addressed, you might not be very confident in fulfilling your mission-that you might die and that used to concern him very, very much.”

In her own case, Hani was not directly involved in her mission but “I think he had some idea and he discussed with me about personal things -do I think I have resolved this? Do I think I am confident I can do this thing? I won’t when I am in the country think there is unresolved business in Lusaka, or some people are enjoying themselves in Lusaka and I am expected to do these things? Do I feel I want to do it, or do I think I want to make a contribution somewhere else? And I think that was very, very important because in the training everybody looks forward to coming home or most people look forward to coming home but we joined the army for different reasons. Some people joined the army - or all of us, we joined the army because we were angry -  we want to do away with the system.”

But once people were on a mission they found that they were not ready in some respects to undertake the mission on which they had been sent:

“But once you are there you tend to discover certain things about yourself, some people discover that they really don’t want to go back home and fight, and because of any army situation, there isn’t enough space to accommodate that kind of situation. Because he used to deal with us individually and discuss with us and found out what troubles us, what makes us happy, you know and all that kind of thing. That was a very, very important thing, more important than the mission itself because these people - we have to implement these missions, and not some people - some objects because they happen to have skills. And because of the process of trying to conscientise all of us, he made us feel you had to do a thing because you think it’s important, because you think it’s going to take our Struggle forward, not because you want to impress somebody not because you want to go up the ladder in the army, but because you think it’s important, you believe in it and, that was very, very important.”

Hani took these humane qualities into political life

I did not know Hani very well but what I observed was that there was nothing formalistic about the way he related to people in the ANC, SACP and Cosatu and the population at large. I remember when he chaired much of the first SACP Congress as an unbanned organisation, in 1991, that he seemed to know almost everyone’s name in a congress of probably a thousand people.

He remembered people whom he had met 10 years earlier and only for a short while. The same humanism that he injected into MK suffused his life as a whole.

Professor Raymond Suttner is completing work as a visiting professor at the Centre for the advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth.  Suttner served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities.  He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.  He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.

Further consideration of Chris Hani’s  leadership will be found in future articles in this series.

Previous articles in this series can be found here.


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