Book Review: A Pretoria Boy: The Story of South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number 1’ by Peter Hain (Jonathan Ball)
The exiled South African activist who led the campaign to isolate apartheid sport slipped back into the country in late 1989 – and, as a reporter, I knew about it but kept it secret.
Was that going against the journalistic code of publish and be damned?
It wasn’t the first time I had got wind of a development geared at undermining apartheid and not reported it.
Having formerly worked as an organiser for the PFP in East London under Dr Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, I obviously followed his career closely after moving into reporting on the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth in August 1984.
When Slabbert quit the PFP in 1986 to form the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for SA (Idasa), I reported eagerly on its progress. I was fortunate that at the then University of Port Elizabeth a young student called Wayne Mitchell was a driving force in the establishment of Idasa.
At one point, shortly before the clandestine July 9 to 12, 1987 meeting between mainly Afrikaner academic and business leaders and a delegation from the ANC led by Thabo Mbeki in Dakar, Senegal, I got wind of the ground-breaking plan. However, I was sworn to secrecy, so did not tell my superiors on the newspaper for fear of jeopardising the meeting.
Towards the end of 1989 I was scheduled to head to London to begin a two-year stint as the SA Morning Group’s correspondent there. Shortly before my departure I met up with Mkhuseli Jack, a young United Democratic Front activist whose path I too had reported on extensively over the past four years. Khusta, as he was known, told me that Peter Hain was in South Africa. Again, I was sworn to secrecy. My position was made doubly difficult because Khusta was in a way my passport to getting into the good books of the still banned and exiled ANC.
After decades of dirty tricks by the apartheid security services, including the placing of certain “journalist” spies in London, the ANC was justifiably suspicious of any new white South African arrivals. So, Khusta could vouch for my having gone out of my way to cover the UDF’s struggle against the apartheid state in the 1980s.
In this just-released autobiography, Hain speaks about how he sneaked into SA under a pseudonym, Peter Western-Hain, combining both parents’ surnames. As so much had happened since Hain began campaigning against racist tours by SA teams in the late 1960s, it seems highly probable that no one at Cape Town International Airport, where he disembarked, remembered him.
When I finally started work in the Hatton Garden, London, office of the SA Morning Group, even my new colleagues John Cavil and Ian Hobbs were astounded when I told them that Hain had slipped into and out of the country without them knowing. His role was to do a documentary on the country he grew up in (he was born in 1950 in Kenya, but his parents were South African) as it teetered on the brink of fundamental change.
During the next two years I occasionally contacted Hain, who was elected as the Labour MP for Neath, Wales, in a by-election in April 1991. I still have an old contact book with his telephone numbers and those of myriad other members of the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
But of course massive changes were under way in SA, with the ANC having been unbanned on 2 February 1990, just a month after I began work in London. By then I had already visited the ANC office and met its London head, Mendi Msimang. The party was still very much an exiled entity during 1990 and 1991, and so contacts like future parliament speaker Frene Ginwala were key sources of information. Indeed, Dr Ginwala had long been the “ANC sources” quoted by the likes of Ian Hobbs in their reports from London.
A Pretoria Boy: Book Review
Hain’s book is a poignant tale of a young boy who was born into the anti-apartheid struggle. His parents were high-profile activists for the Liberal Party, a progressive non-racial party which rendered all manner of assistance to the ANC before and after it was banned in the early 1960s. Eventually, his architect father was so ostracised he could not earn a living and they were forced to head into exile in London.
The senior high-school pupil started a Young Liberals branch in Putney, where they lived, and ineluctably was drawn into the anti-apartheid struggle, joining the Anti-Apartheid Movement. A sports fanatic, he soon realised that sport was the Achilles heel of the white community desperate to continue seeing their cricket and rugby teams in action against other countries.
He built his first campaign around the Stop The Seventy Tour, which was the planned 1970 Springbok cricket tour of the UK (they were called the Springboks then, not the Proteas). Fortuitously for him and his comrades, the Bok rugby team was touring the UK that winter, and they set about invading pitches and generally making life for both the hosting sides and the tourists uncomfortable.
The campaign gained national momentum, with Hain becoming a household name before he was 20. Ultimately, they succeeded in stopping that 1970 tour, and Hain then moved on to help other activists try to do the same wherever the SA cricket and rugby teams toured, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.
As his success increased, he and the AAM focused increasingly on economic sanctions, a process which would, over the next 20 years, apply so much pressure on the apartheid regime that the National Party decided in February 1990 to start a process of negotiating the transfer of power to the black majority.
Hain studied political science, worked for 14 years for a trade union and later became a Labour MP and even later a member of the House of Lords. His youthful activism was not without serious personal repercussions. He was charged in 1972 with conspiracy involving some 900 disruptions of sporting events, even though he had only inspired, not organised, the spontaneous opposition to the tours that was galvanised across the country. He got away, after a lengthy trial, with a £200 fine. Cleverly, he and his attorneys had opted to let him conduct his own defence, so he used the trial as a platform to further expose the moral turpitude of those who played with apartheid.
Later, he is convinced that the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) set up a minor theft of cash from a branch of Barclays bank and pinned it on him by using a look-alike. He was finally acquitted after another long period of court-based anxiety.
Hain shot to prominence again in recent years when, true to his liberal commitment to clean governance, he exposed the complex web of money-laundering through UK banks of millions of rands in the State Capture disgrace. He gave evidence in this regard to the Zondo Commission.
In my own humble autobiography, After the Storm and Before the Rainbow (Footprint Press, 2019), I wrote that “Hain’s Pain is Our Gain”. By that I meant that his isolation of our sport – at that time we had arguably the most powerful cricket side and one of the strongest rugby teams in the world – was a necessary evil. Hain was right, and he later reconciled with Ali Bacher and Danie Craven, who had visited him in London as a young man. During those visits he had told the cricket and rugby bosses that they needed to de-racialise their sports or face continued isolation.
Naturally, Hain went on to become a global figure, meeting Nelson Mandela on several occasions. His book is an insider’s reflection on a momentous period in our history. In the early 2000s, as a junior minister for Africa, he also found himself on a collision course with the tyrannical regime of Robert Mugabe. He is as scathing of the late Zimbabwean liberation leader as he is of Jacob Zuma.
It is interesting to note, and this isn’t something Hain addresses, but the Labour Party of Prime Minister Tony Blair tried desperately to guide Zimbabwe in the direction of properly managed land reform. Heading that campaign was Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development under Blair from 1997 to 2003.
Here is an article about the issue, including the original letter sent to the Zimbabwe government in 1997, three years before land invasions led to the almost total collapse of commercial agriculture in the country and the decimation of its economy. This was precisely what Short had warned would happen, but greed and corruption, not to mention retribution, trumped that most fundamental requirement of the Zanu-PF regime, good governance.
Mbeki, writes Hain, was:
“especially culpable. His government toadied embarrassingly to Mugabe when they could have pulled the plug on tyranny – as, ironically, had happened to Ian Smith under apartheid’s rulers.”
The ANC government would do well to speak to the likes of Short and Hain before they continue their absurd plan to do to South Africa what Mugabe did to Zimbabwe through its expropriation without compensation plan. Sadly, unlike Zimbabwe, as a republic we can’t even call on a former colonial power to help fund such land reform, although Hain does also speak about a mechanism for foreign investment to kick-start infrastructure development in South Africa. Proposals in this regard, he notes, have been ignored by the ANC government.
A similar proposal to use “litigation funders” to track down and retrieve the stolen billions lost to the Gupta and Zuma families has also been ignored.
Hain can be quite naïve at times, overstating the virtue of ANC rule under Mandela, by saying:
“I don’t accept that power automatically or inevitably corrupts: it didn’t do so to Nelson Mandela or Julius Nyerere.”
Unfortunately, Mr Hain, the first serious corruption occurred under the Mandela-Mbeki government: the infamous Arms Deal, a multi-billion-rand military acquisition project finalised in 1999 for which Zuma remains to have his day in court over 18 counts of racketeering, corruption, fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.
There are several odd surprises in this readable book, not least Hain’s admission that he played a role in the assassination of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi, who was “causing big problems” in Angola. On Page 226 he writes: “I issued instructions for Britain to help identify Savimbi’s whereabouts, and to pass this information on to the Angolan authorities. As a direct result, in February 2002 Savimbi was trapped and killed by Angolan forces in remote eastern Angola.”
It’s not something one would normally brag about.
Ironically, Hain didn’t win any accolades from then President Mbeki who, in 2000, had “taken me aside […] and sought to persuade me to back off”. Mbeki had told him that “whatever his activities, Savimbi is an African. The MPLA are mestiços”, that is people of mixed African and Portuguese blood.
Such is the nature of morality among the political elite.