CHRIS HANI, until recently the most visible and persuasive hard-liner in the African National Congress (ANC), today embodies a new optimism in exiled ranks. ``The process is irreversible unless [President Frederik] de Klerk and others want to plunge us into abysmal chaos,'' says the chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's military wing. Mr. Hani's personal view reflects an emerging trust between the ANC and the National Party government.
For four decades, resources were devoted to banning, detaining, torturing, and killing ANC guerrillas and anti-apartheid activists. Now the De Klerk administration has lifted restrictions and vowed to negotiate a democratic constitution within five years.
Hani's hope has its roots in the belief that any attempt by Mr. De Klerk to halt or reverse the process of change would exact such a price in internal resistance and international pressure as to make the action unthinkable.
``He knows that if he stops the process, the white right wing will chew him up. We are his saviors, and he must know that,'' Hani said in a wide-ranging interview with the Monitor.
Hani envisages a protracted political struggle in which the ANC will have more space to build itself into a viable opposition party to challenge the government at the ballot box.
``For me, the unbanning of the ANC is a tremendous event. It means that the regime recognizes all that it has denied and refuted in the past,'' he says.
Hani is destined to be at the center of that process. He is as popular among the thousands of exiled youths who left South Africa since the 1976 Soweto uprising as he is with militant black youths inside the country.
``I see young faces coming into the national executive of the ANC - young people who have been responsible for popularizing the ANC through the Mass Democratic Movement,'' says Hani.
And while he ascribes the new political changes both to internal pressure and to rapidly moving international events, he is generous to De Klerk.
``For him it must have taken a lot of courage and determination to make the sort of declarations he made on Feb. 2, where he recognizes that all South Africans must participate in the administration of the country.''
But ``at the moment I don't think he has any coherent ideas about the sort of South Africa that he wants to build,'' Hani says.
To Hani, a nonracial, democratic South Africa could come in less than 10 years. And within 5 years, the ANC and its military wing will be back home engaged in political struggle, he says.
His views reflect an adjustment of his position since an internal ANC executive dispute 18 months ago over how far the organization should take sabotage and bombings into white areas.
Hani argued in an interview in mid-1988 that the ``sweet life'' of white South Africans should end and they should be made to feel the connection between maintaining apartheid and the loss of human life. He has abandoned that view for the present, but insists it played a role in persuading whites to end apartheid.
``When we began to attack targets in the white areas, for the first time white South Africans began to sit up and say: `This thing is coming ....'
``When they actually began to hear explosions in the center of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, they began to realize that what they saw happening in other countries ... was beginning to take place in South Africa.''
Hani says the strategy became difficult to regulate because of the spontaneous anger of ANC cadres. ``We had to control it and it was a very difficult thing.... We felt that going for civilian targets would be counterproductive in terms of our broad strategy of uniting South Africans.''
Hani says that before the suspension of the ANC's armed struggle there must be direct talks between senior officers of the South African Defense Force (SADF) and commanders of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
``The SADF and MK, at the right moment, must sit down together and discuss the modalities and monitoring mechanisms for achieving a cessation of hostilities,'' says Hani. The recent revelations about ``hit squads,'' he says, would have to form part of precease-fire talks between the SADF and MK.
``I was absolutely taken aback when I was told that senior officers of the SADF were involved in the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), because its operations have actually been responsible for the willful killing of civilians.''
At its 1985 consultative conference, the ANC reaffirmed its policy of avoiding civilian targets.
Hani says, ``I have never taken part in an operation that has involved sending people into South Africa to kill white civilians. It is inconceivable.''
He insists that MK has been instrumental in building the ANC into the force it is today. ``Had it not been for MK the younger generation would not have known of the ANC.''
He says MK also played a pivotal role in building up the ANC underground inside the country.
``If there is a breakdown in the talks and we see that there is no seriousness on the part of the government - and it is resorting to its old ways of violence against us - then those units will be given instructions to fight back to continue with armed struggle.''
Until six weeks ago, Hani called for an escalation in armed struggle with a passion that has become his hallmark.
``The times have changed,'' he says. ``That was the time of [former President Pieter] Botha ... the enemy was sending its forces across the border and killing our people.
``It was a very difficult period so my language had to reflect that sort of climate. But now there is a climate in South Africa which demands responsible statements from the ANC - including myself. We are calling for unity and reconciliation. We want to defuse the emotions and the passions,'' he says.
The most immediate reason for Hani's transformation seems to be the influence of Nelson Mandela, who after release from prison last month, was named ANC deputy president. Mandela presided over his first executive meeting here last week.
``Here is a man who has been incarcerated for 28 years and there is not a trace of bitterness,'' Hani says. ``For us this is an important lesson.''