Lord Peter Hain: ‘My friend Mandela must be turning in his grave!’ | Politics | News

April 19, 2024

Lord Hain in his office with his treasured Nelson Mandela portrait

Lord Hain in his office with his treasured Nelson Mandela portrait (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster)

When people contact the office of Lord Peter Hain at Millbank House in Westminster, they may be surprised to find the life peer himself answering the phone. “People will ask to be put through to my diary secretary. I say: ‘That’s me’,” laughs Lord Hain in his distinctive South African accent. “Or they ask to speak to my researcher. I’ll say: ‘That’s also me.’ They have no idea that peers get an office – I happen to have a nice one – a PC and an iPad. That’s it. You don’t have any secretarial support.”

To be clear, his office is large with space for two computer desks, a bookcase and coffee table. But it is fairly rudimentary, not dissimilar to what you might find in a school office. It’s certainly not what you might expect for a prominent former Labour frontbencher whose achievements include brokering talks between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party as Northern Ireland Secretary.

That led to the original power-sharing Northern Irish government, ending IRA violence. Lord Hain, who also served as Secretary of State for Wales and Work and Pensions, and Leader of the Commons, proved a credible figure in the peace talks as a life-long anti-apartheid campaigner.

In his office, the eye is immediately drawn to an impressive artwork of former South African President Nelson Mandela by his desk. Lord St John of Bletso recently gifted Lord Hain one of 10 limited-edition prints of the original charcoal drawing by Cape Townbased artist Fiona Goldthorpe.

It’s a thoughtful gift for someone who regarded the freedom fighter as a good friend. Lord Hain says: “I’ve had the privilege to meet kings and queens, celebrities of all descriptions, presidents and prime ministers, but he’s the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met. And it’s because he always cared about people.

“The higher people get in life, be that the top of a government, a monarchy, a sports star or pop star, they tend to retreat into a space surrounded by protection. That never happened with Nelson Mandela. He always had time for people, and ordinary people as well.”

With Nelson Mandela and African Unity Organization Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim in 2000

With Nelson Mandela and African Unity Organization Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim in 2000 (Image: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP via Getty Image)

South Africa is top of our agenda today for Lord Hain has just published The Lion Conspiracy, the final novel in his ‘Conspiracy’ trilogy.

It covers the illegal wildlife trade across several African countries, including Lord Hain’s birthplace, and the environmentalists trying to stop the criminal syndicates behind it.

Rhino and Elephant were the first two books in the series. Then Lord Hain learnt that lions have “become more endangered than rhinos and elephants”.

He explains: “They could be extinct by 2050 if things go on as they are. The Lion King and ‘The King of the Jungle’ will become a historic curiosity for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

There were 200,000 lions across Africa a century ago but that figure is now 20,000. And the majestic large cat, hunted to extinction in 30 out of 50 African countries, is in huge demand for its teeth and paw bones, which are ground down and turned into wine for the nouveau riche of China andVietnam.

“It’s the international criminal syndicates who are paying poor local poachers to kill the wildlife species. They are protected by corrupt politicians who are getting a kickback,” Lord Hain continues. “It’s not because of climate change and human behaviour but political corruption and criminality.” Lord Hain says the industry worth billions is “equivalent to the drugs trade and human trafficking now”. “Governments do a bit but virtually nothing about it,” he says.

Does that disappoint him? “Yeah it does. I’m angry about political corruption in my home in South Africa but it really makes me angry that? if governments wanted to do something about it – and I’m not just talking about London and Washington D.C, but also Beijing, Delhi and Moscow – if they really wanted to do something about it, you could stop this illegal trade. But they don’t.”

Corruption in all its guises underpins Lord Hain’s view of what is wrong with the world. He was born in Kenya but raised in South Africa, the son of anti-apartheid campaigners who were harassed and jailed in 1961 for their activities. Lord Hain’s mother, Adelaine, was the only white person in the public gallery at Nelson Mandela’s trial when he was accused of trying to overthrow the government.

The family fled to London in 1966. A young Peter then led a successful campaign against the South African rugby and cricket tours, still one his proudest achievements “as that was seismic in its impact on the antiapartheid struggle”.

He was sent a letter bomb in the mail in 1972 and framed for a London bank robbery by the South African secret police. He was later acquitted. Today, amid a wave of corruption and the potential re-election of disgraced former president Jacob Zuma, 81, Lord Hain said Nelson Mandela would “be turning in his grave at what’s happened to South Africa”.

Mr Zuma stood down in 2018 over allegations of corruption and received a 15-month jail term in 2021 for refusing to cooperate with an official inquiry.

“What Zuma wants to do is to loot again,” he says. “It’s not about improving the lives of the millions of poor people in South Africa. There isn’t any danger of him winning but he can create a lot of friction, aggravation and disruption in Parliament.

“It shows how far and how fast the ANC’s [African National Congress] standing has fallen. And quite rightly so. As somebody who counted myself privileged to be a personal friend of Nelson Mandela’s, and who idolised him, his legacy has been completely betrayed by all the corruption.”

During his last visit at Christmas, Lord Hain met a woman who had refused to pay a bribe so her daughter could sit a driving test.

“It’s infested the whole of society,” he says. While he was still an MP, he used Parliamentary privilege to expose the role of international banks and British companies that moved illicit funds to Zuma and his corrupt supporters.

“To open a bank account, buy or sell a house, or do almost anything financial in the world, you have to climb through all sorts of hoops to prove who you are and what are the source of your funds,” he says. “Yet international crime and money laundering continues unabated at the level of £2trillion a year.

“Why aren’t our banks and systems catching these people instead of making life miserable for us just to do an ordinary daily thing like opening a bank account?” Lord Hain is not without controversy himself concerning financial irregularities. In 2008, he resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary after failing to declare £100,000 of political donations for his deputy leadership campaign within the allotted timescale. He later called it an “honest mistake” and “apologised unreservedly” for his error.

Hain speaking at London rally against Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 1977

Hain speaking at London rally against Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 1977 (Image: Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

But he also doesn’t believe “Britons should stand on some pristine podium”.

“We had a lot of corruption in Britain under Covid, which has been exposed,” he says. He also cites the “enormous corruption” in Russia greasing the wheels for President Vladimir Putin. Does he think Ukraine can win against its oppressor?

“It’s going to be very difficult if Donald Trump wins the American presidency because he’s already said he’d withdraw support,” says Lord Hain. “He doesn’t seem to mind Putin travelling all over the world.

But this is in Europe’s back yard. What will Putin do next if he manages to defeat Ukraine? Will he threaten Moldova? Will he go for some of the Baltic States?”

He believes this is a real possibility. “In my lifetime, this is the most perilous moment for the world – the combination of the consequences of Putin’s aggression, the Gaza- Israeli horror and the implication for a powder keg region, and the climate emergency. It’s a very dangerous world at the moment.”

He has confidence in Lord David Cameron. “For a Conservative Foreign Secretary, he’s doing a good job,” he says. “But there is a really serious danger of this escalating into a regional war which would have global repercussions. Wars often start off in an unpredictable and unplanned way. That was the classic case with the First World War. People often retaliate in a way that then provokes an unforeseen counter. And there’s a danger of a tit-for-tat escalation just exploding, a real danger of that.” In February, he warned the House of Lords none of the lessons of Northern Ireland were being applied to the Israel-Gaza conflict. And he believes Hamas has “been strengthened” in the months since the October 7 terror attack by Israel‘s relentless bombardment.

“It frustrates me a lot, having been intimately involved in helping to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict, that people seem to think it was an easier conflict to solve than the current Israeli-Palestinian one. It wasn’t. That went back arguably eight centuries. It was bitter, horrible, plagued by terrorism.

“There were horrible atrocities committed and bigotry and prejudice of a terrible kind. And a lot of that you see in the situation now. People will not like me saying it but you will not resolve this problem by fighting or bombing.You’ll only resolve it by negotiating and that’s not a weak thing to do.

“It took courage for John Major to start talking to the IRA leadership. It took even more courage for Tony Blair to get the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. You need statesmanship and courage.”

With US and Irish leaders including President Bush in 2006

With US and Irish leaders including President Bush in 2006 (Image: Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)

Labour is headed for almost certain election victory, if the polls are to be trusted. Should Keir Starmer become our next prime minister, does Lord Hain believe he will try to do something different to David Cameron’s even-handed approach?

“Britain is not the main player here but we are an important one and we do have influence. And I think that Keir will want to try and exert that influence in a positive way, in a creative way but none of these things are easy,” he says. “He’s a very strong person and whether people are natural Labour supporters or not, they see him as a prime minister who would do Britain proud regardless of what they vote.”

Lord Hain is pressing for the creation of an international anti-corruption court and wants “Britain to lead the push for that” if Labour wins the election.

The climate emergency is his biggest worry. He’s angry about the British farmers unable to claim compensation for their flooded farmland if it’s 150 metres away from a river.

“How are they going to grow the food to feed our nation? How are they going to do the jobs they want to do? The Government is penny pinching over the most ridiculous rules,” he huffs.

He’s proud of his achievement in Northern Ireland and helping Wales to win the legislature towards devolved power in 1997.

“It’s quite hard being a minister. It’s tough getting things changed – you can make speeches galore, issue policy papers by the million and pass laws. Changing things is much harder. Government is a process factory, not a delivery mechanism. But that’s another subject entirely.”

The Lion Conspiracy by Peter HainThe Lion Conspiracy by Peter Hain [Muswell Press]

The Lion Conspiracy by Peter Hain (Muswell Press, £14.99) is out now.Visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25

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