Lord Peter Hain: Time for South Africans to rise up and demand change

Lord Peter Hain has urged South African citizens to rise up and demand change like many did to defeat apartheid and stop the country from becoming a failed state. This call to action was made during the Neil Aggett lecture at Kingswood College in Makhanda, which commemorated anti-apartheid activist Neil Aggett, who was murdered by the apartheid police while in detention in 1982. Lord Hain warned that South Africa was at risk of becoming a failed state due to incompetent and thieving ministers and councillors. He called on ordinary citizens to rise up and campaign for change, just as they did during the struggle against apartheid.


Neil Aggett lecture Kingswood College, Makhanda (Grahamstown) by Lord Peter Hain

South African citizens have been urged to ‘Rise up and Demand Change’ like many did to defeat apartheid and stop the country becoming a ‘failed state’ by former UK Cabinet Minister and anti-apartheid campaigner, Lord Hain.

Lord Peter Hain, anti apartheid campaigner who became a Labour Party cabinet minister and is now in the House of Lords.

He was delivering a lecture to commemorate anti-apartheid activist Neil Aggett murdered by the apartheid police in detention on 5 February 1982.

Speaking to students at Kingswood College, Makhanda (Grahamstown) where Neil Aggett was a pupil between1964 and 1970 Lord Hain said:

‘Today, tragically, the many thousands of freedom struggle activists like Neil Aggett have been betrayed by the ANC politicians who have looted and brought the country nearly to its knees.’  

‘Similarly betrayed have been the ANC heroes of the liberation struggle, the leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Lillian Ngoyi, who gave up the prime of their lives to serve harsh jail sentences.’

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‘Decent people across South Africa, people of all ages and skin colours, tell me how despairing they are for the future of the country under incompetent, thieving ministers and councillors.’

‘South Africans from every walk of life, black and white, young and old, tell me they feel helpless, feel they cannot do anything about power cuts, water cuts, or about dysfunctional or non-existent postal or local municipal services, feel politics doesn’t serve them anymore, feel their vote is worthless – even though it took a momentous fight to get it for everyone.’

‘My message to them, my message to you all, is: learn from South Africa’s struggle history.’

‘The struggle giants, the Nelson Mandelas and Oliver Tambos, the Neil Aggetts and Joe Slovos, didn’t defeat apartheid on their own.  They were leaders of a mass movement of many tens of thousands of ordinary people who, in the most oppressive of conditions, resisted apartheid, risked their very lives, and threw themselves into activism.’

‘Many made sacrifices, some small, some big, some sacrificed their freedom, some their families, some their very lives.  Some did a little, others did a lot – but they all did something.’ 

‘And they each contributed in whatever way they could to one of the most successful movements for change ever in modern history.’

‘They defeated a powerful police state.  They refused to be subjugated by an economic system feeding profitably in a trough of racism.  And they beat and defeated apartheid, the most institutionalised and micromanaged system of racism the world has ever known.’

‘Back in the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, people said, people feared, that could never happen, might be impossible.’

‘But it was made possible because enough ordinary citizens – cleaners, labourers, teachers, nurses, doctors, people from all professions, people of all skills and none – rose up together and campaigned, and struggled, and fought for change until eventually they won it.’ 

‘Today South Africa must be changed again – radically, and soon. But history teaches us that big change doesn’t normally come from the top.  It never did under apartheid, it usually never has anywhere else.’  

‘You won’t change this country unless you do it yourselves. Politicians won’t do it for you.  They have become too comfortable in power, too dependent upon its privileges.  They have a vested interest not to change. Once politicians start looting it becomes an addiction.  They become the political alcoholics, political drug addicts.  They can’t, and they won’t, stop doing it.’

‘You – the people of South Africa – have once again to rise up and resist as civil society, firmly standing together to say ‘enough is enough’.  To reclaim the democracy and the ideals of the freedom struggle.’

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‘To kick out corrupt politicians and their officials. And be careful not to replace them with the even more corrupt and authoritarian populists, whether from right or left, within and outside the ANC, who claim, dishonestly, that they are fighting for a radical form of black economic empowerment: empowerment for themselves in reality, not for everyone.’ 

‘Every one of you can do your bit.’

‘Saying ‘No!’ to paying a bribe or a backhander for a contract, for a job, for a permit, for a licence, for starting a business, for building a home, ‘No!’ to a corrupt trade union if you are applying for a teaching job.’ 

‘Saying ‘No!’ to the Home Affairs Department official who demands a payment to grant a visa to the Zimbabwean employee who keeps your small business going.’

‘Saying ‘No!’ to the policeman who stops you on a spurious traffic offence and wants money to let you go.’

‘Often it’s very difficult to say ‘No!’.  Much easier to opt for a quiet life and just hand over the money.’

‘But until everyone unites to say ‘No!’, nothing will change.’

‘Until a mass uprising said ‘No!’ to apartheid, it didn’t change, and never would have.’

‘Join a popular uprising to say ‘No!’ and demand change.’

‘If you don’t pay those bribes, if businesses don’t pay those backhanders, the money for the corrupt politicians and officials will dry up.’

‘Easier said than done, I know.’

‘But I say to you in all frankness: if you don’t act, don’t complain.  If you don’t resist, don’t moan.  And don’t be surprised if this beautiful, special country of yours slides into becoming a failed state.’

‘I urge you to rise up and reclaim the noble mission of Mandela, of Tambo and Sobukwe, of Sisulu and Kathrada, of Biko and Slovo, of Hani and Kasrils.‘

‘Stand on the shoulders of these giants – and you can do it.’

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Lord Peter Hain’s full speech below:

Preparing for this talk I wondered idly whether, had I as a sixteen-year-old not been forced with my brave anti-apartheid parents into exile by the apartheid police, I too might have ended up being assassinated by them, like Neil Aggett was in detention on 5th of February 1982.

So might any student at this school like he was, had you been born under apartheid like Neil was, had you been brave like he was, had you believed that every school student should be treated equally whatever the colour of their skin, like he did.  

Neil, one of a very tiny minority of other white anti-apartheid activists of his era, came from a community enjoying one of the most privileged existences on earth, with a black servant class attending to their every need.  

Yet he gave that all up because he believed every person – regardless of their race, religion, gender or sexuality – had the right to justice, the right to liberty, the right to equality of opportunity.  

And he was selfless, fighting for others, not for himself. 

He lived according to Nelson Mandela’s guidance: ‘What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others.’

For students of today and students of the future at Kingswood College, Neil was a role model, attending between 1964 and 1970, and winning numerous awards and certificates, before studying at the University of Cape Town and completing his medical degree there in 1976.   

He became a doctor working mainly in overcrowded and desperately under-resourced black hospitals across the country.  At the same time, he was a champion of workers’ rights and workers’ health and safety. He became a volunteer organiser with the African Food and Canning Workers’ Union, working without pay, taking additional weekend hospital night shifts to support himself. 

But his passionate trade unionism proved fateful.  For it made him a target of a brutally repressive police state and he was arrested in late 1981, ending up in Johannesburg’s notorious police headquarters, John Vorster Square, only emerging in a coffin.  

The apartheid security services who’d brutally interrogated Neil, maintained he’d ‘hung himself with a scarf’ – just as they variously claimed others who died mysteriously in prison had ‘slipped in a shower’, ‘fallen out of a window’, ‘fallen down stairs’, or various other mendacious, specious excuses. 

At that time, he was the 51st person to die in detention – an apartheid total that later escalated to over 70 such deaths. He remained the first and only White person to die in detention from torture.  No one has ever been convicted for any of those 70-plus murders, and I hope the school library has a copy of George Bizos’s book No One to Blame about them.

Pilloried, harassed, exiled, abducted, or simply ‘disappeared’, imprisoned, banned, house-arrested, tortured or assassinated – people forget how hard a battle it was for those struggling to overthrow apartheid. 

Today it is taken for granted that Nelson Mandela walked to freedom in February 1990 after 27 years imprisonment and four years later was elected President. 

Today it is taken for granted that however serious South Africa’s problems of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, corruption, power and water cuts and mafia-like crime, each South African citizen has human rights protected by their Constitution.

But none of that was achieved without a bitter fight against merciless opponents, and my family’s story was a small part of that.

The apartheid security forces despatched my parents, me, my brother and two small sisters unwillingly into exile from a country that was just as much ours as theirs.  

Not because my Mom and Dad had committed the sort of ‘normal’ crimes in democratic societies policed by the rule of law – such as theft, fraud, violence, rape or murder, that kind of common crime – but because they stood up and fought apartheid: the most institutionalised system of racism the world has ever seen. 

In exile, the apartheid security service tried to kill me in June 1972 with one of their specialities, a lethal letter bomb, sent to our London address.  It would have blown up our family and our home except for a fault in the trigger mechanism.   

Other anti-apartheid campaigners weren’t as fortunate as I was.  Ruth First’s letter bomb killed her in Maputo in 1982, Abram Tiro’s in Botswana in 1974, blowing both to smithereens.

Neil Aggett also paid that ultimate price.  In any civilised society he would have lived a full life, as a different kind of role model to Kingswood College, protecting people’s health as a doctor or protecting food workers’ rights as a trade unionist.

But today, tragically, the many thousands of freedom struggle activists like Neil Aggett have been betrayed by the ANC politicians who have looted and brought the country nearly to its knees.  

Similarly betrayed have been the heroes of the liberation struggle, the leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Lillian Ngoyi, who gave up the prime of their lives to serve harsh jail sentences.

Decent people across South Africa, people of all ages and skin colours, tell me how despairing they are for the future of the country under incompetent, thieving ministers and councillors. 

South Africans from every walk of life, black and white, young and old, tell me they feel helpless, feel they cannot do anything about power cuts, water cuts, or about dysfunctional or non-existent postal or local municipal services, feel politics doesn’t serve them anymore, feel their vote is worthless – even though it took a momentous fight to get it for everyone. 

My message to them, my message to you all, is: learn from South Africa’s struggle history.

The struggle giants, the Nelson Mandelas and Oliver Tambos, the Neil Aggetts and Joe Slovos, didn’t defeat apartheid on their own.  They were leaders of a mass movement of many tens of thousands of ordinary people who, in the most oppressive of conditions, resisted apartheid, risked their very lives, and threw themselves into activism.

Many made sacrifices, some small, some big, some sacrificed their freedom, some their families, some their very lives.  Some did a little, others did a lot – but they all did something.  

And they each contributed in whatever way they could to one of the most successful movements for change ever in modern history. 

They defeated a powerful police state.  They refused to be subjugated by an economic system feeding profitably in a trough of racism.  And they beat and defeated apartheid, the most institutionalised and micromanaged system of racism the world has ever known.

Back in the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, people said, people feared, that could never happen, might be impossible.

But it was made possible because enough ordinary citizens – cleaners, labourers, teachers, nurses, doctors, people from all professions, people of all skills and none – rose up together and campaigned, and struggled, and fought for change until eventually they won it.  

Courageous school students in Soweto lit a fuse in June 1976.  They were gunned down by police for protesting peacefully, but refused to be cowed, and their defiance triggered a fresh wave of resistance that ultimately brought down apartheid.  

Today South Africa must be changed again – radically, and soon. But history teaches us that big change doesn’t normally come from the top.  It never did under apartheid, it usually never has anywhere else.  

In Britain, when women eventually won the right to vote, generations after men had won their struggle to achieve the vote, the government didn’t voluntarily agree to that.  It took the suffragettes to rise up and demonstrate and campaign and fight a government run by men until eventually it gave in.

You won’t change this country unless you do it yourselves. Politicians won’t do it for you.  They have become too comfortable in power, too dependent upon its privileges.  They have a vested interest not to change.  

Once politicians start looting it becomes an addiction.  They become the political alcoholics, political drug addicts.  They can’t, and they won’t, stop doing it. 

You – the people of South Africa – have once again to rise up and resist as civil society, firmly standing together to say ‘enough is enough’.  To reclaim the democracy and the ideals of the freedom struggle.

To kick out corrupt politicians and their officials. And be careful not to replace them with the even more corrupt and authoritarian populists, whether from right or left, within and outside the ANC, who claim, dishonestly, that they are fighting for a radical form of black economic empowerment: empowerment for themselves in reality, not for everyone.  Beware also of those hankering after old white privilege.  

I don’t know if the ANC can be saved from itself.  I don’t know if the good people still in the ANC can fully reclaim it from the corrupt ones who riddle the Party from top to bottom. And, even after half a century of links to the ANC, I’m not sure what I would vote today if I had a vote – or whether it is even for me to say.

But meanwhile, every one of you can do your bit.  First by doing your very best, driven by the vision of an inclusive and united South Africa propagated by democracy’s founding mothers and fathers.  

Do your very best at school.  Your very best at teaching.  Your very best at whatever you do in future, tending to gardens or tending to the sick, running a business or running a trade union.  

And also saying ‘No!’   

Saying ‘No!’ to paying a bribe or a backhander for a contract, for a job, for a permit, for a licence, for starting a business, for building a home, ‘No!’ to a corrupt trade union if you are applying for a teaching job. 

Saying ‘No!’ to the Home Affairs Department official who demands a payment to grant a visa to the Zimbabwean employee who keeps your small business going. 

Saying ‘No!’ to the policeman who stops you on a spurious traffic offence and wants money to let you go.

Often it’s very difficult to say ‘No!’.  Much easier to opt for a quiet life and just hand over the money.

But until everyone unites to say ‘No!’, nothing will change.

Until a mass uprising said ‘No!’ to apartheid, it didn’t change, and never would have.

Join a popular uprising to say ‘No!’ and demand change.

If you don’t pay those bribes, if businesses don’t pay those backhanders, the money for the corrupt politicians and officials will dry up.

Easier said than done, I know.

Much easier said than done, I know.

And easy for me to say all this because in a few days I will get on a plane and fly back to London.  

But I tell you this in all frankness, from experience of over fifty years in politics: first as a Pretoria schoolboy supporting my Mom and Dad in their anti-apartheid activism; then as a London teenager stopping the all-white apartheid Springboks; then as a British MP, British cabinet Minister, and now a member of the House of Lords, still campaigning, still agitating.

I say to you in all frankness: if you don’t act, don’t complain.  If you don’t resist, don’t moan.  And don’t be surprised if this beautiful, special country of yours slides into becoming a failed state.

I urge you to rise up and reclaim the noble mission of Mandela, of Tambo and Sobukwe, of Sisulu and Kathrada, of Biko and Slovo, of Hani and Kasrils.  

Stand on the shoulders of these giants – and you can do it.

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*Lord Peter Hain is a former UK Cabinet Minister and anti-apartheid campaigner. Lord Hain’s memoir A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’ is published by Jonathan Ball, as are his thrillers The Rhino Conspiracy and The Elephant Conspiracy.

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