Daniel L. Douek

South Africa | The 1993 plot to kill Chris Hani

In his new book Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in South Africa Daniel L. Douek presents new evidence that the 1993 assassination of  ANC and Communist Party leader Chris Hani cannot be attributed solely to two right wing extremists. There was a broader conspiracy linking the entire Apartheid security apparatus to the killing.

A dramatic revelation emerged in early 1997 with the leak of an investigative report compiled by South Africa’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA). It described a broader conspiracy to kill Chris Hani, the former Umkhonto we Sizwe Chief of Staff and newly-appointed chief of the South African Communist Party, who was murdered outside his Boksburg home on 10 April 1993. The official police investigation, along with the African National Congress investigation and the South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, all found Hani’s murder to be the work of only two people: a lone gunman, Janusz Walus, acting under the orders of Conservative Party MP Clive Derby-Lewis. This explanation has long been doubted by many people, in South Africa and beyond, who suspected a broader conspiracy. The only South African news outlet that devoted in-depth coverage to the NIA report was the now-defunct investigative weekly New Nation. According to the NIA report, approximately twenty people were involved in the conspiracy to kill Hani, ranging from apartheid covert unit operatives to members of the security force leadership and at least one member of South Africa’s post-1994 parliament. This finding complements evidence laid out in ZAM investigations editor Evelyn Groenink’s book Incorruptible, that also indicated a broader conspiracy to kill Hani.

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The NIA report stated that ‘between January 1993 and April 10 [the day South African Communist Party leader Hani was killed], this undercover manager [of a private security company, formerly working for the Apartheid Special Forces] played a very significant role in Chris Hani’s assassination. He gathered most of the information on Hani’s schedules, and personal life. He did most of his observations from the safety of the patrol vehicle and under the flag of the security company.’ This second gunman also accompanied Walus on reconnaissance missions five days before the assassination. ‘It is this investigator’s conclusion from evidence gathered that he was the second gunman, shooting from behind the wall’ adjoining Hani’s house. During the initial investigation, police had found footprints behind the wall, as well as cigarette stubs and an empty soda can left on the wall, but had not pursued these leads. The report also found that during the operation’s reconnaissance phase, Walus and the second gunman were also accompanied by ‘well-known’ Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB) operatives and the South African Defence Forces Military Intelligence (SADF MI) commandant who ran the security front company.

The NIA’s report found that planning for this assassination attempt began in July 1992, when a warrant officer serving at Vlakplaas [ a shallow farm, military base of official death squads ] was tasked with gathering information about Hani’s movements in Transkei, where Hani had already been the target of several assassination plots. There, the intelligence on Hani was gathered by a well-placed apartheid spy within the Transkeian Defence Force (TDF) Military Intelligence. This spy had access to TDF Military Intelligence Col.W. Zwayiba and to Transkei strongman Bantu Holomisa, and it was he who disclosed the plot’s details to the NIA in 1997, ‘linking the entire apartheid security establishment to the killing.’ These intelligence-gathering activities then formed the basis for an elaborate plan orchestrated by Vlakplaas. The Vlakplaas warrant officer handling the agent in Transkei allegedly told him that ‘an operation to kill Hani was planned by “head office,” meaning police headquarters in Wachthuis [Pretoria].’ A week later, another high-ranking officer from Vlakplaas gave the agent R10,000 for the intelligence and for providing the names of possible assassins. Soon after, the agent was told that a police general ‘had other plans for Hani’ and the Transkei-based operation was cancelled. This correlates with information about SADF MI plots on Hani’s life in Transkei in 1992 that were ultimately shelved. It also makes sense that the apartheid security forces, having perceived an opportunity to kill Hani in Johannesburg, would choose this option over an assassination attempt in Transkei, where the presence of MK [ Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military arm ] forces and the coup attempt on Holomisa would make surprise difficult and deniability implausible. In Johannesburg, the apartheid forces were on home turf, as it were, and could more seamlessly gather intelligence for the assassination. During this same meeting between the Transkei-based agent and his handlers, the Vlakplaas warrant officer disclosed that ‘a killer had already been recruited,’ mentioning that he was a ‘mover’ and a Polish immigrant: namely, Walus ́.

Security elites decided ‘to eliminate the ANC leadership before it was too late’.

From then on, the operation was ‘carefully managed’ by a select ‘inner circle’ composed of Vlakplaas, South African and former Rhodesian special forces operatives. According to the NIA report, this ‘inner circle’ had been organized in August or September 1992, soon after security force elites decided to ‘eliminate the ANC leadership before it was too late.’ Vlakplaas’s Transkeian agent was then arrested on trumped- up charges after he unwittingly revealed to Eugene de Kock that he was aware of an SADF MI gun-running racket; the agent was then imprisoned until after Hani’s death, ensuring that he could leak no details of the assassination plot beforehand.

Another key operative identified in the NIA report, who had previously been involved in the killings of several ANC activists, was tasked with providing the money needed for the operation. Once the funding and logistics for the plot had been organized, it entered its second phase; now, the individual identified as the second gunman, using the cover of his private security firm, began conducting surveillance of Hani, monitoring his ‘moves, schedules, habits, and personal life.’ This information was then relayed to a Vlakplaas policeman and several others, who were named in the report but whose identities were not disclosed. Of the 20 conspirators, the report especially recommended the investigation and questioning of the second gunman, a Military Intelligence commandant, and other key players in the assassination, including a traffic policeman ‘known to many Third Force operatives* and to the second killer,’ who had attempted to have Walus released after his initial arrest by two junior constables: ‘He was far too quickly on the scene and was obviously expecting something of this nature. He should be investigated.’ The report also concluded: ‘it is very clear that [former SAP] Gen. —— [name redacted by New Nation] gave the order to kill Chris Hani. He should be called in and interrogated.’ Finally, the report recommended investigating another Vlakplaas policeman who had provided Walus with his vehicle and other logistical support in preparation for the assassination.

In his memoir People’s War: Reflections of an ANC Cadre, Charles Nqakula recalls an MK cadre he knew from the Pango camp in Angola, John Itumeleng Dube, who had been captured and tortured by the regime, became an askari, and was acting as a double agent secretly informing Hani of security force designs to kill him. According to Dube, ‘the Boers’ wanted Hani ‘dead by any means possible.’ In April 1997, former Vlakplaas operatives claimed that most of Chris Hani’s correspondence, including handwritten messages and other directives, had been intercepted by their unit. These operatives had been tasked with conducting surveillance on Hani from 1992 until his assassination, and a former Vlakplaas officer living in Pretoria, as well as a black policeman still serving in the post-transition police force, claimed to have in their possession some documents authored by Hani, including a map that Hani drew for an MK operative. According to them, two former askaris and an informer, along with their white handlers, developed an elaborate surveillance operation to infiltrate Hani’s office and monitor his communications. Hani’s correspondence was leaked by an MK operative who had been recruited by Vlakplaas; this MK operative was based in Transkei from mid-1992 until 1993, and was an active member of the post-transition South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in 1997. New Nation journalist Jimmy Seepe wrote that his ‘attempts to obtain copies of the map and other Hani correspondence drew a blank. The [former Vlakplaas] operative promised to give us the copy for verification once he has obtained clearance from his former bosses.’ It is striking that as late as 1997 the former death squad’s chain of command was apparently still intact.

Another piece of the puzzle fell into place with New Nation’s revelation of an apartheid-era document labelled ‘Top Secret’ and dated September 1992, which noted: ‘this conversation can be instrumental in neutralizing the current SACP/Hani/Kasrils factions. It can also be used to win votes in a future election if the SACP participants can be neutralized.’ New Nation did not provide the context of the ‘conversation’ in question, but, as we have seen, the same document was cited during Directorate of Covert Collection (DCC) member Jan Anton Nieuwoudt’s trial, which described a meeting between members of DCC and several key MK leaders, notably Joe Modise, featuring the same passage about ‘neutralizing the SACP/Hani/Kasrils faction.’ The Mail & Guardian’s Stefaans Brümmer noted that Nieuwoudt’s document suggested a ‘serious split’ emerging between Modise and Hani, and that while Modise denied ever having been approached by SADF MI, Nieuwoudt ‘ominously’ discussed ‘exploitation of the split’ and ‘a final phase to this goal.’

The secret document named several DCC senior officers who were forcibly retired from the SADF after they were named in the Steyn Report, which linked the DCC to Third Force activity and led to FW de Klerk’s officers’ purge. Among these officers was the head of the DCC, Brig. JJ ‘Tolletjie’ Botha, and senior staff officer Col. At Nel, who was identified in the secret document as being responsible for the SADF’s ‘Internal Subtheatre,’ an SADF MI structure that dealt with domestic security threats. The document, drawn up by an operative at the rank of lieutenant colonel and known only as ‘Fox’ (this was Jan Anton Nieuwoudt), was written at the height of the Kempton Park negotiations between the NP and the ANC, and was copied to Brig. Botha and Col. Nel for comment. ‘Fox’ wrote that ‘the purpose of this memorandum is to inform you about the current conditions inside Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and to either make or ask for recommendations and guidelines to exploit this situation to the advantage of the current government.’ As we have seen, the ‘conditions inside MK’ that could be exploited referred to the alleged willingness of high-ranking members of MK leadership to be recruited by SADF MI.

The document revealed a close working relationship between the police based at John Vorster Square and the DCC, and suggested that the decision to ‘neutralize’ Hani and Kasrils came after the 1992 massacre of pro-ANC protesters at Bisho in Ciskei, at which time Nel and Nieuwoudt, under the guise of the Pan-Afrik Consultants front company, were both overseeing the Ciskei Defence Force under strongman Oupa Gqozo, and exploiting the opportunities this afforded them to target MK. The document also gave the code names of police agents 241/153 and 241/222, who had infiltrated the ANC and MK leadership; agent241/222, in particular, was described as being ‘instrumental in infiltrating MK leadership,’ and as frequently accompanying MK leaders within South Africa. New Nation journalists contacted Joe Mamasela, the notorious askari attached to the Vlakplaas unit, who confirmed that Vlakplaas had been involved in the preliminary stages of the plot to kill Hani, and that he ‘did not doubt that other people were called into the plan’ as it progressed.

Meanwhile, the NIA report’s mention of ANC members of parliament who were involved in the plot stands out especially in the light of the reference to SADF MI’s plans to ‘neutralize the SACP/Hani/ Kasrils’ faction in the ANC. As we have seen, these plans developed after a meeting between DCC officers and very high-ranking members of the MK leadership who were open to being recruited as apartheid spies. One of the MK leaders at this meeting was Joe Modise, who was South Africa’s minister of defence when New Nation published the findings in 1997. In this way, New Nation’s coverage of the covert NIA report – which no other media outlet reported on at the time – reinforces evidence suggesting that elements within the ANC had been recruited by SADF MI and were privy to, if not actively involved in, the plan to kill Hani. Moreover, the SADF MI memo’s stated objective in ‘neutralizing’ Hani’s power – to ‘win votes in a future election’ – is noteworthy because it reinforces the perspective put forth in this book: that clandestine apartheid counterinsurgency operations during the transition period did not aim to derail negotiations with the ANC entirely, but rather to violently shape the outcome of a future election to the regime’s advantage.

The ‘Third Force’ was a clandestine force of South African security-force operatives which, following the onset of negotiations between the ANC and the Apartheid regime in February 1990, unleashed a massive wave of violence against individuals and communities loyal to the ANC. This continued until 1994. The source of the violence wad intended to be untraceable, hence the name ‘Third Force’, which implied that neither the regime nor the ANC was responsible. The extent to which the ‘Third Force’ answered to De Klerk’s government is still debated.

This is an excerpt of Daniel L. Douek’s 2020 book, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in South Africa (Oxford, UK: Hurst Publishers), available in hardcopy and as an e-book. Daniel L. Douek teaches political science at McGill University and Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.