🔒 Peter Hain on Mandela, Ramaphosa and white South Africans

LONDON — Lord Peter Hain, who refers to himself as a boy from Pretoria, talks about the future of white South Africans, Nelson Mandela and SA president Cyril Ramaphosa. – Alec Hogg

This is The Rational Perspective. I’m Alec Hogg. In this episode, Peter Hain on Mandela, Ramaphosa, and white South Africans. It’s always special to visit with Peter Hain, the anti-apartheid icon who’s had a highly successful half-century career in British politics. Last time I watched him deliver a killer speech in the House of Lords which smashed any hopes the Guptas had of slinking away into the shadows. This time he hosted me in the Royal Gallery, a grand room through which Elizabeth the Second passes en route to her official throne where she delivers the annual Queen’s Speech, the official opening of the British Parliament.

It is a completely different world and I would never have anticipated being here until out of the blue, my then party leader Ed Miliband asked me. I was sitting in PE in 2014 when he sprung these requests on me to re-stand as a Labour MP in the 2015 election. He asked me to come here. My immediate concept was that I don’t believe in the place. I think it should be elected to which he replied, “That’s exactly why I want you there because I need reformers. Too many people go native when they go there and if I become Prime Minister” (as he expected to do then) “then I need people like you to help get it democratically constituted.” Well, that’s all history. I did make the decision to come here because it actually suited me after a quarter of a century as an MP, the various things that were going on in my life and to lower the pace of activity to make space for other things. I must say that I’m enjoying it. Not because of the antiquated, undemocratic institution that it is but because it is part of the legislature. Every law through the House of Commons has to come through here and so e.g. when the Sanctions and Money Laundering Bill came through Parliament, it started off in the Lords which I was able to use as a platform at the request of brave whistleblowers in South Africa who supplied me with the ammunition to then expose a lot of the Zuma/Gupta fraud, looting,and the way that it was going global and the way that they were using global corporates to do it.

Lord Peter Hain, UK, House of Lords
Lord Peter Hain

To use that platform… It is one that the world’s media pays attention to.

Yes, e.g. as a result of that particular speech that I made (the longest speech that I made during the bill preceding) where I explained the atrocity (scandal is too light a word for it), criminality of the Vrede Dairy farm scam which involved looting money from the poorest rural farmers or workers – not even farmers yet – that was designed to help in the Free State. Then, recycling that money internationally – laundering it to bring it back into South Africa and then to spend on a grotesque wedding in Sun City, whilst those poverty-stricken people were left destitute. That did move a lot of people, both here and creating a lot of international attention as a result of which The New York Times came to see me. The Economist came to see me and then went and did big exposés, which I think helped create a climate in which even those ANC delegates to that conference in December who were wavering as to whether they stuck with Zuma or whether they went with Cyril. It may have swung a few votes.

And that’s all that was needed…

Well, it was a frighteningly small majority. A point I often make about Cyril Ramaphosa’s current Presidency is that he won with 179 votes out of 5,000 and had a perilously narrow majority in all the structures of the party and he’s still constrained by all of that.

Is that affecting his approach? Apart from the Zondo Commission and apart from some of the other progress that has been made, he does seem to be pretty tentative. The Ramaphoria that erupted in the initial election seems to have dissipated.

Well, I’m a hardened politician. I’ve been 50 years in anti-apartheid politics-to-parliamentary policy, including some of the highest levels of the cabinet. I said at the time he was elected, “Do not expect quick change.” Now, to his great credit, he’d already started clearing out the state-owned enterprises, appointed a new Eskom Board in January whilst he was still Deputy President although President of the ANC, so he’d started that job very quickly but I said, “There is a change in any system” – and I’ve experienced that as an insider in the British government where we have a much longer tradition of parliamentary democracy and South Africa is a young democracy. We have a much more established and grounded system of administration, civil service, and government that is not as easy…It’s much more difficult to manipulate in a corrupt way – in the way that President Zuma and his cronies were able to do and yet, it was very difficult to get change – very difficult as a minister. People don’t understand how difficult it is for governments to change things, even when your motives are absolutely/totally correct (as I believe Cyril Ramaphosa’s are). Even when you’ve got a majority, even when you’ve got everything going for you as the earlier years of the Blade government did with a massive majority and so on. It is still difficult to shift the system. So, I think expecting quick change under Cyril was always going to be a disappointment. You stick with him. You keep pressuring him. Civil society helps bring about that change. The independent media, including the Biznews’ and the Daily Maverick’s etc. help create that change. I think a strong civil society should keep the pressure on Cyril but do not expect him to do the impossible.

As you might expect, our conversation soon moved across to Peter Hain’s superb book on his friend, South African leadership icon Nelson Mandela. I loved this punchy, well-written 196 pages on the man who changed a nation’s destiny. But with a veritable library of books on Madiba already available, why did Hain believe another was needed.

I felt (and this is what I was asked to write) there was a need for a concise, essential story – but a readable one – that you could just pick up and read on a long train journey, a plane journey, lying on the beach, or over a weekend. There are wonderful books on Madiba. Anthony Sampson’s biography is a masterpiece but it’s 800 pages and Madiba’s Long Walk to Freedom is a brilliant book but it’s 800 pages. I wanted to write something where, whether you’re a student, a pensioner, young, old, well-informed, or half-informed but interested; you can just pick it up and read it. It was difficult to write and I drew on a lot of work, particularly the Anthony Sampson book and of course, Long Walk to Freedom itself. I have a mantra myself, though and it’s one of the subjects I teach at Wits Business School where I’m a visiting professor where it’s ‘if you’ve got something to say, you’ve got to be able to say it in a form that catches people’s attention, that if it’s in writing, it’s readable rather than too dense/too packed with information and facts that people start to lose the flow on. So, that’s the way I approached it, to try and get people to turn the page and I found it a fascinating enterprise because I learned a lot in writing it that I didn’t know – a lot of things I didn’t know. I came to understand Nelson Mandela in a much deeper way than I thought I understood him and I was privileged to have been a friend in his latter years as my parents had been in their late 50’s and early 60’s in Pretoria but I found out a lot about him that I didn’t understand before and I wanted to transmit it to just the average reader rather than the highly-informed intellectual or incredibly well-informed journalist.

You didn’t get distracted. I think that was the thing that impressed me most and it’s so easy to get distracted in his life. Take Bram Fischer as an example. The great friend of his, the advocate, the man who made sure that Madiba didn’t die or wasn’t executed. You mentioned him but you didn’t get distracted and go off into Bram Fischer’s whole life story. It remains very focussed and I think that (to me as a reader) when I read a book on Mandela, and you achieved that.

Well, that’s what I hoped. I also explained to the lay reader (especially the British or the American reader because it’s been published there, too and an edition has been especially printed in India) who admire the icon but want to know the story and I didn’t really want to be distracted although Bram Fischer’s role of course, was crucial to the police in the Rivonia Trial when he pleaded with Madiba to not make the famous statement from the dock where he said he’d be prepared to die for his belief in a non-racist society because he was worried that it would lead to his execution and it is an interesting question as to why it didn’t and why the state, the judge on his own, or a combination of the two (we’ll never know the truth about that; at least, I don’t) decided that life imprisonment was a better sentence in the circumstances. A very prudent decision, I think at the time but one in the end, that saved South Africa. I tried to kind of just zero in on the subtitle of the book ‘the essential story – his essential life’.

When one studies another human being in this way (as you do when you write a book) you would also leave it with a number of lessons. What did you come away with?

First of all, I say in the preface that I was not an impartial observer. I don’t approach it as a journalist would. I was a participant in the anti-apartheid struggle and therefore, a partisan in my admiration for Nelson Mandela but I think it’s important not to hero-worship him. He was the first to say, “I’m no saint” and he wasn’t. His personal life – certainly before he went into prison and before he got married to Winnie – he was very much a man-about-town and he was very popular amongst women etc. That’s not to criticise him. It’s just making a statement about him, that he was not a saint. The thing I learned most about him was his fortitude, his resilience, and the way that he learned. He became a leader. He went into prison as a leader but he came out as a leader of his country. He went into prison as a leader of the freedom struggle (as a burly freedom fighter). He came out as a wise leader, trying to build a one-nation South Africa and that I think, was a very important lesson for leadership. The other thing that I came to understand and associate with, is leadership (and again, I teach about this at Wits Business School) … I distinguish between leadership and followership and I really came to understand this. I’d been sort of intuitively finding my way through there in my own experience. Madiba was a leader, not a follower of his followers.

Weak leadership often does exactly what your followers want you to do, because it keeps them happy. They are your constituency and you need them because they are your base and you would not be there if they were not to have confidence in you and to be able to sustain that confidence is important. I know having been a member of Parliament. But he was also willing to do what he thought was the right thing and invariably proved the right thing, even when he was advised not to do it. Leadership is sometimes doing what your closest confidantes and advisors (in his case Party Members) advise you not to do because actually, it was the right thing to do for the country, and the classic example was the 1995 World Cup Final where his closest associates said,”If you don that Springbok jersey and wear that Springbok cap, you will be wearing the symbol of apartheid on the rugby field as it had been for generations” but he knew it was the way, a year into his Presidency with his own legitimacy still very fragile with the white community. It was able to seal the deal with the white community which he needed to do to govern for the whole of the country.

It is often suggested that Cyril Ramaphosa was Mandela’s favourite. That he has the same approach towards a nonracial South Africa nation building.  And we have not seen any of that, and certainly, the white community in South Africa right now is feeling very nervous. There is a lot of immigration. There is a lot of money that is leaving the country. From what you know of this man and from what you know of his favourite because that is what Ramaphosa was. How would you advise those people who are very fearful right now?

Well. First of all, I do think and it was no accident that he made that clear in his opening speeches that Cyril Ramaphosa is in the Mandela tradition, that he is trying to re-establish the Mandela Legacy but to deepen it with economic transformation and addressing the land reform issue and so on which I think is important to do. But I can well understand why the white community is feeling insecure at the moment but that has been happening for quite a while, including since the transformation and I think the reasons for that are complicated. We’re both from the white community in South Africa and the white community had the most privileged existence in the world and it is not easy to come to terms with the loss of that privilege. Even though objectively you believe that what happened with the abolition of apartheid was the right thing for the country and for you, you know the opportunities for your kids and opportunities for you maybe if you are younger are not what they were, and nor can they be.

But I think the white community’s duty if it can (and I’m not giving any lectures to any individuals)… What happened to me was an historical thing. I did not find myself in Britain through choice. I found myself in Britain because we were forced into exile as a family by the apartheid Government. So I am not judgemental on anybody for choosing to live in London rather in South Africa. I do think if you think the future of South Africa is dependent primarily on high-quality skills – and economically, that must be the face in the modern world of globalisation – then the flight of skills acquired through the social capital invested in you in South Africa, white or black is a big problem for the country. So, I’m not making judgments on the individual families circumstances. I talk to very prominent white women here in the South African diaspora who had a horrific carjacking in Johannesburg and very bravely resisted it and just said I can’t. I have got to move otherwise maybe all of my 9 lives will be used up and maybe I have used them up already, so I understand that. A shocking thing like that is perfectly understandable, but I think, I still have confidence in the future of South Africa. The lot of the objective conditions are the right ones through the legacy of apartheid and the legacy of Zuma have created incredible difficult conditions to overcome.

It could have been difficult enough facing the competitive threat from India and China which is where I think people should be focussed in South Africa rather than only on the internal debate. I think South Africa’s debate is far too parochial. Maybe I see it in a different way from somebody who is born and brought up in the struggle in South Africa and has lived there all their lives, but I do because I have a global perspective because of my circumstances. If you think that the real, that South Africa’s future is about being a competitive economy with social justice… Of course, the two have to co-exist as a truly competitive economy in a country like South Africa cannot be possible without social justice, and the problem with neoliberalism and why we’ve got such political instability across the world and tumult across the world, is because neoliberalism has created circumstances in which 9 out of 10 people in the developed economies have lost out or remained stagnant now for decades.

The promise to future generations is actually a fading promise and that is why there is so much discontent, which explains Brexit. It explains Trump. It explains Macron and actually explains Jeremy Corbyn. They are all different. You can’t put Trump and Corbyn in the same box – ideologically or politically. That would be absurd, but they are all products of massive discontent with a neoliberal economy that rules the world, and you have to change that but South Africa has to do so in a way that keeps people skills and so I would say to the white community, “Yeah, you are worried about land reform. You are worried about your own house.”

I was talking to an Indian family. Well established in Johannesburg. Successful in business and so on who are worried about whether they’re they going to have their house taken over. There is that concern right through the country. And I said to everybody on land reform, “Look the matter is for South Africans to decide and the government to decide and selected democratic politicians to decide what you do about land reform but be very careful about how you pursue this.” If you destabilise foreign investment. If there is a loss of confidence for an investment… Actually, there is a massive loss in confidence in the foreign investment because of the Zuma legacy. It picked up with Cyril and now I think it is on hold because there is uncertainty over land reform amongst other things. Amongst many other things.

You have to do it in a way that retains domestic confidence in the white community, in the property-owning Indian community, in the property-owning coloured community, and in the property-owning black community as well – all those different communities. So, I think the white community should not see itself as some hell in isolation or beleaguered because I don’t think it’s any more beleaguered than if it chooses to interpret it’s position predicament in that way than the Indian community is.


The coloured communities and actually the black middle class is actually in the same position. It’s another minority.

Peter. How have the book sales been going?

They have been pretty well. They have not been spectacular as far as I know. The Americans were pleased with it. The British publishers were pleased. The South African Jonathan Ball was pleased. I haven’t seen the latest figures. It was being reordered in bookshops which is always a nice thing.

And what’s your hope? What do you hope to achieve by having written this book because nobody gets rich out of writing books?

Nobody does and certainly not me. I have written 21 books and I have never made it. My wife describes me as working for a quarter of the minimum wage. No hourly rates. It’s not about that. I give a lot of them away as well. I hope that it will be read by a lot of young people in South Africa because I worry about the fact that the ‘Born Frees’ particularly haven’t got a sense of their own history. And actually, in particular if I am going to distinguish between the racial groups a lot of black young South Africans who, it’s really important I think they know where they are coming from and this book is an easy way into that. You don’t have to read a textbook on apartheid. You can just read the story. Identify with Mandela. See what he went through. Why and what apartheid was really like. I think it conveys that as well. At least that was what I intended to do.

What’s next? We have seen your battle against the Zuptas. You have now finished the book on Mandela. You have been involved heavily in the Centenary Celebrations of Nelson Mandela. You’re still fit and healthy and in the House of Lords. How are you going to continue with your activation from here?

I’m enjoying doing the role of Wits University Business School Visiting Professor which takes me out every 3 or 4 months. I find it enormously rewarding talking about leadership, talking about negotiation, conflict, dispute resolution, and about communications. Media from the point of view… Not your point of view as a journalist but my point of view being on the other side of the microphone or the television camera or the print media and how to deal with that.

And then, about speaking in public. Most people don’t know how to speak in public. They kind of rattle on too long and bore the pants off of people and don’t understand how to communicate what they want to say in a brief attention span and similarly with the writing in a way that is conveying a message. Most writing is too long of all descriptions. So I’m enjoying that as I feel that is a small way, having had a lifetime experience from the grass roots of politics and struggle to the highest levels of government and now in The Lords. If I can convey some of that and pass it on as some of the insights. Then I think I can still make a difference.

I mean making a difference (and that is what Nelson Mandela also taught me) is this wonderful quote that I start the book with and end it with just as a reminder that the purpose of life is not just to be there but to make a difference.

And make a difference Peter Hain certainly has. First, by being the driving force behind the boycott of Whites Only sports teams during the apartheid era and more recently by focusing global attention on Zupta corruption.

His book on Nelson Mandela might not have that kind of seismic impact but it is indeed another meaningful contribution.

This has been The Rational Perspective. I’m Alec Hogg. Until the next time. Cheerio.