After completing his compulsory conscription, Mr Hanekom travelled abroad where he worked for various organisations including working on farms, factories and building sites. He returned to South Africa in his early twenties and continued farming for six years.
After serving a three year period in prison, Derek worked with the trade union movement in Johannesburg, until his wife's release from prison in 1987, and subsequent deportation to Zimbabwe. He spent three years in exile in Zimbabwe. During this period Derek served as the co-ordinator of the Popular History Trust in Harare.
Mr Hanekom provided the ANC with information about the apartheid defence force's attempts to overthrow the Mozambican government through the rebel movement, Renamo. This led to their arrest in 1983, initially charged with High Treason, but subsequently reduced to lesser charges as a result of the international sensitivity of the case.
He returned to South Africa after the unbanning of political organizations in 1990, to work at the headquarters of the ANC, where he was responsible for policy formulation on land and agricultural matters during the period of negotiations prior to the first democratic elections in 1994.
Prior to his appointment as Minster of Science and Technology Mr Hanekom served as Deputy Minister of Science and Technology from 29 April to 3 October 2012; as Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs of the Republic of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 and he served as member of Parliament from 1999 until 2004.
He serves as the Deputy Chairperson of the Board of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.