The message about Hani that I am at last beginning to hear
When Chris Hani died in 1993, young Tom Eaton, like many others, didn't understand what it meant
Twenty-five years ago, a high school history teacher named Pippa Visser got up to deliver an assembly devotion.
The school, my own, was rooted firmly in Baptist dogma and these short motivational speeches were usually something to be endured or, now and then, marvelled at as they segued clumsily from New Testament metaphors about rich men and camels to explaining why we shouldn’t smoke behind the bicycle shed.
When Miss Visser stood up and walked to the lectern, however, we knew we weren’t going to get camels.
That was partly because of who she was: a plain-talking academic whose wire-rimmed John Lennon spectacles and an unwillingness to suffer fools or cant hinted at a life of activism and possibly iconoclasm beyond the school gate.
But on this morning, it wasn’t just her personality that told us we were getting something different. It was her face.
She was pale with rage and grief, and when she spoke she had to fight for the words. But I think she had delivered eulogies before, and she spoke on, clearly, cleanly, and shockingly.
A great and vital man named Chris Hani, she told us, had just been murdered, and now the country was in terrible danger.
Behind her, the older staff members sat in stiff silence. In that wood-panelled, gold-embossed bubble, politics were something to be avoided at the best of times and, as a staff member memorialised a militant black Communist, some of them must have felt as if the temple curtain was being torn in half. But still, they sat still and solemn, and listened.
I listened, too, but mostly I looked, shocked by the sight of a teacher showing so much emotion. Her face was desperately sad, and wracked by the sort of rage one feels when fools have broken something terribly precious.
But behind those emotions there also seemed to be a deep frustration, and not just with the paranoid racists who had murdered Hani. She also seemed to be frustrated with us, this hall full of soft, pink, sheltered children who didn’t understand the enormous loss we had all just suffered.
Certainty, I didn’t have a clue. I’d heard Hani’s name, and knew (as I’d been told repeatedly by the media) that he was a Communist who wore a military uniform most of the time, which wasn’t a good sign. But that was all.And because I didn’t know anything about him, I quietly reassured myself that he couldn’t have been that important, and that those who were reeling at the loss were somehow over-reacting. With the supreme self-centeredness and callous ignorance of a child, I dismissed Hani and those who mourned him.
This response – to diminish or dismiss something simply because it exists beyond the garden fence – is a profoundly backward one. It traps us in prejudice and ignorance. It robs us of an opportunity to learn, not just about other people but also about other ways of living. It keeps us locked in an ever-shrinking world, instead of freeing us to explore new universes.
We can never know what kind of leader Chris Hani might have been, although those who loved him are sure that he would have been a great one, and that this country would have been much further down the path of social justice had he lived and taken his rightful place in parliament.
But those of us who didn’t know him, or, indeed, knew nothing about him, can at very least pause and look beyond the garden gate. If we’re not sure, we can ask: why is he still mourned? What, exactly did we lose? If we still respond to his memory with suspicion or an urge to disparage him, why?
I wasn’t ready to hear Pippa Visser in 1993. Sometimes we take decades to hear a sentence. Maybe all the words eventually sink in, one day. I hope so.