The End of the Rainbow Nation Myth

If you ask South Africans of my generation to name the most important political event of their lives, many will cite the assassination of Chris Hani. Mr. Hani was revered for his bravery in fighting against the apartheid government and for his internal dissent within the liberation movement. In 1990, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Mr. Hani questioned the decision to suspend the armed struggle in favor of a negotiated political settlement. He worried that the men who had upheld a racist system for decades could not be trusted to simply hand over power.

Mr. Hani was gunned down in the driveway of his home in front of his 10-year-old daughter on April 10, 1993. White supremacists Clive Derby Lewis and Janus Waluz admitted to killing him. Their intention was to destabilize the country’s transition to democracy — and they very nearly succeeded.

For a week after Mr. Hani’s death there were outbreaks of violence. Nine days after the killing, a huge crowd gathered at Johannesburg’s largest stadium. Angry and worried about the threat of unrest, Mr. Mandela closed his eulogy by pleading for calm: “When we leave here, let us do so with the pride and dignity of our nation. Let us not be provoked.” He reserved his final words for Mr. Hani himself, saying, “You lived in my home, and I loved you like the true son you were.”

It is difficult to overstate Mr. Hani’s importance to black South Africans. Having escaped three previous assassination attempts he was legendary long before his murder.

His death lies in the middle of a tumultuous but ultimately triumphant era in South Africa’s political history; it occurred roughly halfway between the brutal murder of the black consciousness leader, Steve Biko, in 1977 and the quiet passing of Mr. Mandela in 2013. This symbolism is not lost on those of us who continue to mourn his passing at this time every year.