CHRIS HANI'S killing this week reflects the bitter harvest of apartheid. Although a desperate, even deranged, act, it disrupts the growing political harmony between whites and blacks. It further perpetuates the purposeful obliteration by whites of prominent black leaders, and thus deepens the great gulf of racial distrust.
Mr. Hani was the long-time top general of the African National Congress's (ANC) revolutionary army - Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Trained by the Soviet Union, he led the guerrilla warfare campaign against South Africa from Angola and Zambia.
For the past year Hani has headed the multiracial South African Communist Party, succeeding Joseph Slovo, its long-time white president and chief theoretician.
The South African Communists have been affiliated with the ANC since the 1950s. Hani represented a younger generation of black Communists who came to Stalinism and Marxism after the ANC had been banned and forced into exile. Hani was a younger rival of Nelson Mandela, president of the ANC. At one time an heir presumptive to Mr. Mandela's leadership, his position was usurped last year by Cyril Ramaphosa, now secretary-general of the ANC.
Mr. Ramaphosa represents a younger cadre of ANC militants who fought apartheid from within South Africa, not from exile. Ramaphosa led the country's black trade-union movement before being elected to the ANC leadership.
Hani was justly popular with black South Africans, particularly those of a more radical, more militantly anti-white persuasion. His popularity and his ebullient personality may have threatened right-wing whites and conservative forces among the South African Army.
But his assassination represents something more than a tragic attack on a well-known militant.
Throughout the darkest days of apartheid, officials in the police or the Army tortured and killed suspected radicals. Steve Biko was only the most prominent of those who were murdered in 1977 in detention.
Matthew Goniwe and three others were killed mysteriously in an automobile "accident" near Cradock in the eastern Cape Province in 1985.
Recently investigations connected with an inquest have revealed that Mr. Goniwe and his colleagues were probably "removed" from society by the South African security forces, acting on direct orders from senior military officers.
White South African Army or police commanders are now assumed to have ordered and participated in the killing of many other white and black opponents of apartheid in South Africa and Namibia, as well as in neighboring countries.
The toll of acknowledged mischief is mounting steadily; only after the ANC gains control of South Africa's government might more of the full truth be uncovered.
Hani's cruel death is also a prominent further commentary on the everyday violence that now wracks South Africa. Even when the strong hand of apartheid, pass laws, and influx control seemed to secure most of the country, crime and killings in black townships were among the highest per capita in the world. Now, crime and criminal-related deaths have soared even higher. But so have political-related murders and massacres.
Apartheid itself was repressively violent. The current post-apartheid period is proving as deathly, with about 9,000 people having been killed since Mandela's release in 1990 as a result of inter-communal violence - fighting largely between the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party.
South Africa expects to inaugurate a transitional multiracial executive sometime this year, and then to hold the nation's first full and free elections in 1994. The breakdown in law and order, which Hani's killing symbolizes, will make both the coming together of blacks and blacks, as well as whites and blacks, that much more difficult.
Life is cheaper than it was, certainly in the black townships of South Africa. Apartheid deprived black South Africans of educational advancement and of job opportunity and mobility. The nation's economy is fragile. Unemployment rates for blacks are well over 30 percent.
The transitional executive, and any ANC-dominated government that eventually follows, will have an enormous task to overcome the corrosive effects of apartheid on the souls of South Africans. The legacy of violence is enormous. So is distrust. Hani's death, like that of Mr. Biko's, are mileposts of despair.