South African anti-apartheid activist Lord Peter Hain joins the BizNews Power Hour to discuss the release of his memoir, A Pretoria Boy: The Story of South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, and what it was like growing up in Pretoria with activist parents. Hain reflects on what is happening in South Africa now and gives his honest view of Cape secession. His advice is to learn and draw inspiration from the liberation fighters of the past in order to change things for the better. “There is good in South Africa despite the bad. There is excellence, despite some of the chaos. There are incredible entrepreneurs, despite the dead hand of bankrupt and badly run state-owned enterprises. I still think the country’s got great potential, and I hope the bad can be beaten by the good. But it won’t be unless we do something about it. Change is only ever brought about by minorities acting. It needs mass support to deliver it, but it’s only minorities who give the leadership.” – Claire Badenhorst
Lord Peter Hain on turning to writing:
I haven’t given up on the Guptas. In fact, my pressure has resulted in them appearing on a UK sanctions list like the US has done to them. Now, I’ve found myself writing more. I wrote the political thriller set in South Africa last year, which you’ve mentioned, the Rhino conspiracy involving poaching and also Gupta-like corruption at the top of the South African government. Then I co-authored ‘Pitch Battles’ with the story of the sports apartheid struggle with my good friend Andre Odendaal. So somehow these have all happened at the same time. So I’ve been pretty busy with the word processor. Yes, I have.
On why he chose to write his autobiography now:
Well, I discussed it with the publishers, Jonathan Ball, and they were keen on it because back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I was called public enemy number one in the apartheid-supporting South African media and because of my activities of militantly disrupting Springbok and other all-white South African sports tours. Then there was a kind of period of decades where my name wasn’t particularly known in South Africa, except for well-informed politicos and those of a certain age and then, of course, suddenly finding myself in the spotlight again over exposing the Gupta international dimension of the money laundering and corruption involved in the global corporates under parliamentary privilege in the House of Lords. They felt and I felt it was the right time to tell the whole story, that this wasn’t just some British lord pontificating away about corruption and money laundering, but that I had a back story of anti-apartheid activism beginning with my parents in Pretoria when I was a boy. So it’s called ‘A Pretoria Boy’ with a picture of me in my Pretoria Boys High uniform, looking very smart, aged about 14, on the front cover.
On his activism starting with his parents:
It does; I’m very proud of them. They’ve both passed now, sadly, in their 90s. But my father, Walter Hain, was born in Durban. My mother, Adelaine Hain, who was the chief activist of the two, was born in Port Alfred. They were a young South African couple who found themselves impelled to take action against apartheid and drawn more and more into the struggle to the point where, in the early ’60s, the ANC having been banned along with a lot of other key anti-apartheid groups, the Liberal Party of South Africa, which they were chair – my dad was chairman and my mother was secretary of the Pretoria branch – they became the chief and most notorious activists working clandestinely with ANC figures, though they couldn’t officially operate as ANC activists, and attracted the notoriety of the security police.
One of my earliest memories I describe in ‘A Pretoria Boy’ was being woken up in the middle of the night as an 11-year-old to be told that they’d been put in jail. They were the first, I think, to be jailed under what was then the 12-day detention without trial legislation, which subsequently became 90 days and then 180 days and then indefinite. So that was an experience. And there were others of Special Branch invading the bedroom to search for incriminating evidence against my parents by going through my motor racing files because I was a motor racing fan as a boy, and I still am. So it was a combination of an ordinary white Pretoria boyhood life of great outdoor sports and bike races and all of that kind of thing, and then completely abnormal compared with my peers at school or any of our relatives – police raids and Special Branch parked at the bottom of the drive and constantly being tailed around, even following me to school as I cycled to Pretoria Boys High sometimes.
On whether members of the Liberal Party would feel their struggle was worthwhile:
Well, I know my parents did. My mom died two years ago and my dad four years ago; I know they did feel their struggle had been vindicated by Nelson Mandela’s accession to the presidency, but they also felt like I do, that the Mandela vision and that of his comrades like Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu and all of that incredible special leadership of the freedom struggle, they felt had been betrayed. If my mom and dad were still alive now, they would feel very upset by the attempted – some would call it a coup, attempted coup, some, uprising – over the last few weeks to try and free from prison former President Zuma. So they were just as unhappy with the turn of events in South Africa now, but would they have done anything different? Would I have done anything different in risking prison myself and all the other attacks on me from the apartheid state through stopping the Springbok tours? No, I don’t. I feel entirely vindicated by that and would do it again. And I’m proud of what they did and proud of what I did. But that doesn’t mean to say you agree with everything.
And, you know, life is not perfect. I mean, just look at Britain and its post-Brexit mess with the government and a prime minister [who] has no credibility that seems to Trump-like garner public support, not least because of Labour’s previous incompetence under Jeremy Corbyn. We’re living in a very troubled world and South Africa is part of that. But I think that the anti-apartheid struggle and our role in it, which was small compared with the heroes of the struggle – the Mandelas and the Tambos and the Sisulus and the Ronnie Kasrils and the Joe Slovos, and all of them and many thousands of others. Our role was marginal compared with theirs.
But I think you’re asking another question indirectly, which is the role of small-l liberals and big-L liberals in the late ’50s and ’60s is often written out of history, and yet it was important. Otherwise, why did the apartheid government eventually ban the Liberal Party in 1968? Because it was then the only nonracial party after the bannings of the Congress of Democrats and the ANC and the PAC and so on. Because the Progressive Party of that time, although, we all admire Helen Suzman immensely and I do as well, the Progressive Party was not a universal franchise party. It was a qualified franchise party. It had a little bit of apartheid. And you ask what did public opinion at that time – amongst whites – think of the Liberal Party? They were hostile to it. The apartheid state did everything they could to harass my mom and dad and eventually drive them out of the country by stopping my dad working as an architect, which is why we very unwillingly had to go into exile and the rest is history, including me being a lord talking to you now – very improbable Pretoria boy who has ended up on a long journey in the House of Lords.
On how South Africa isn’t as bad as some may think:
I always think white South Africans should feel lucky that they had – in Mandela and Tambo and the rest of the ANC leadership – a movement committed to democracy that ushered in the finest constitution in the world without which former President Zuma wouldn’t be in prison. There are not many countries in the world where courts order former presidents into prison, are there? South Africa is going through a bad time and has been for at least the last 10 years, but compared with a lot of other countries, it hasn’t done too badly. That doesn’t mean to say anybody should be content with the status quo, which is not a status quo that is capable of bringing a decent life to all South Africans. In fact, the very opposite. But the other thing I say is it’s no good just moaning; you can all do something. Everybody can make a difference in their own lives. Lots of people can make a difference and cumulatively, that will build again a better South Africa.
On Cape secession:
Well, the world’s political systems of governance are under enormous threat at the present time, and you see this with separatist movements and that’s just one symptom. The world over. Catalonia, in Spain, for example. The Basque country, previously in Spain – there was a war of terror there to try and get secession. Scottish nationalists who are gaining more and more momentum and Boris Johnson and Brexit are doing them a big favour and giving them a big boost. I’m not a separatist. I am not either some kind of romantic patriot and a believer in a sort of jingoistic national identity, but I would not support secession by the Western Cape any more than I’d support secession by Scotland, because ultimately if you’re smaller, you’re weaker. You’re stronger together in a bigger entity. That’s true for Scotland and Scotland will be a tiny country of five million, as opposed to one of over 65 million and one of the biggest economies and strongest and most influential countries in the world, which is the United Kingdom.
The Western Cape on its own may feel, both the coloured community and the white community especially, and some of the black community as well, and the Indian community may feel they don’t want to have anything to do with the rest of the country because it’s too chaotic. But actually, the Western Cape would be weaker because it would be smaller. Even if a difficult path to secession were ever to succeed, and I doubt that it would, and I doubt that it would be smooth – I think it would cause a lot of conflict and confrontation and that’s the last thing, frankly, that South Africa needs or that anybody living in the Western Cape needs.
I love the Western Cape. I go there a lot and I’d like to go there more, if not for Covid. So my counsel would be to those who are frustrated and many who have moved to the Western Cape from cities like Joburg and elsewhere, I know personally, for a better quality of life and a safer form of life. I think that they need to work to make the country better and that may be tough. Yes, it is tough. A lot of things are tough at the moment right across the world, not just because of Covid. Look at what the United States has been through. I had friends in the United States under Trump who just wanted to leave the country, wanted the bits that weren’t Trump to get out of the rest, you know, secede from the rest of it. But we’re living in a world of more than a billion Chinese, more than a billion Indians, of a very aggressive Putin-led Russia (which is a big country), with big so-called strongmen of the world – the formerly Trump, the Putins, and dangerous leaders like Erdogan in Turkey – and the new Iranian regime and the Saudi Arabian regime.
This is not a time for people to kind of break off into smaller units and think that they can bob around on the sea of the world and be somehow stronger. You won’t; you can’t escape your reality and you’re better to try and change it, however difficult you may feel [it is]. And I can well understand South Africans at the present time when you hear some of the slogans mouthed by agitators, including in KwaZulu-Natal inside the ANC, and I’m not just talking about the EFF attacking minorities in South Africa – not just whites, but also Indians and coloureds. I can see why Western Capers, particularly from those three groups of citizens, could feel, well, we want to do our own thing.
On drawing inspiration from anti-apartheid activists:
I think for a lot of those who were involved in the anti-apartheid struggle that, you know, there is good in South Africa despite the bad. There is excellence, despite some of the chaos. There are incredible entrepreneurs, despite the dead hand of bankrupt and badly run state-owned enterprises. So, you know, I’m perhaps a glass-half-full person by temperament and attitude rather than a glass-half-empty person. I still think the country’s got great potential, and I keep saying so and I will keep saying so, and I hope the bad can be beaten by the good. But it won’t be; it never is in life. I’ve discovered that, without getting too philosophical, unless we do something about it. Change is only ever brought about by minorities acting. It needs mass support to deliver it, but it’s only minorities who give the leadership. And I don’t mean racial minorities. I mean groups of individuals who feel impelled to lead. Mandela and Sisulu and Tambo, Kathrada and all the others. They were minorities amongst their own people, exceptions amongst their own people. And so in the white community were, you know, my mum and dad and Joe Slovo and Ruth First and Ronnie Kasrils and Denis Goldberg and all the other great heroes of the struggle.
Whatever frustrations – and I share many of them – that South Africans have at the moment, of all colours – it’s not just whites in the Cape or coloureds in the Cape or Indians in the Cape – it’s people everywhere, all have real frustrations, you know, this is a different place. South Africa is a very different place for the better compared with when the Riveras got assassinated and lots of other people. And, you know, nobody wants to go back to those days but nobody wants to stay where we are now either.
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