This week’s 26th anniversary of the assassination of Chris Hani brings to mind the critical role played by Nelson Mandela at the time to defuse a situation that could have easily descended into a bloodbath, derailing a peaceful transition from apartheid.

Hani, who had attained iconic status among the youth as a fearless freedom fighter, was gunned down in the driveway of his Boksburg home at Easter in 1993 by Janusz Walus, a Polish immigrant. Walus had plotted the murder with Clive Derby-Lewis, a senior member of the Conservative Party. Hani's murder threatened to plunge the country into a race war, which was the plotters' intention. Bands of youths went on the rampage around the country threatening revenge.

With tension gripping SA, Mandela went on national television to appeal for calm, pointing out that it was a white woman “of Afrikaner origin” who had risked her life by providing the information that led to the arrest of the suspects. These evil men, he said, should not be allowed to destroy what Hani had given his life for. It was a master stroke. Relative calm returned. Three years earlier, hardly a month after his release from prison, Mandela had ventured into the cauldron that was KwaZulu-Natal, where hundreds had died and thousands had been displaced in a bloody civil war between ANC and IFP supporters. Amid groans of disapproval, Mandela urged his supporters to “take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea”. It was a shock to supporters who had expected sympathy from the hero they were seeing for the first time. Some of them may even have expected him to launch them into battle. The appeal didn’t stop the violence, but his message was unambiguous. H...

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