Peter Hain

The Ordinary Activists: In Conversation with Peter Hain

Former Secratary of State for Wales and MP for Neath, Peter Hain, was a significant figure in the campaigns against apartheid in his native South Africa in the 1970s and eighties. His new book, Ad and Wal, tells the story of his parents anti-apartheid activism in Pretoria in the 1960s, from extremely close quarters. Here Adrian Masters caught up with Mr Hain at the launch of the book.

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A social club on a rainy night in the Neath Valley seems a long way from Apartheid-era South Africa, but for one night only the function room at Ynysygerwyn Cricket Club was filled with photos and stories from that time, as several generations of family, close friends and long-term political supporters celebrated the extraordinary lives of Adelaine and Walter Hain, the ‘Ad and Wal’ who have given their names to the title of Peter Hain’s new book.

At the centre of it all, this softly-spoken couple sat, amused and baffled by all the attention, insisting that they’re just ordinary people with a sense of right and wrong and would do it all again.

Adelaine told me she hasn’t been able to bring herself to read large parts of the finished book because she finds the memories still too raw. You’ll see below that when he interviewed his mother, Peter Hain found it difficult to drag information out of her.

He also reveals just how much his father contributed to the book’s creation in terms of research and writing. Walter says he’s read it all but admitted to me that he too struggled when it came to revisiting the death in wartime Italy of his close friend Lanky and his own narrow-escape from the same attack.

In the bar of the club I interviewed their son, someone I’ve thrown questions at repeatedly for many years. Sometimes those questions have been quite personal, but never as personal as asking him about his parents, his own childhood and the trauma of upheaval still affecting his brothers and sisters nearly fifty years on.

He’s clearly proud of what his parents did and also what they didn’t do; that they refused to take part in violence as well as refusing to turn a blind eye to injustice. A flash of anger crossed his face at even the suggestion that they were in any way complicit in the violence that took place.

When a person writes about people close to him, that obviously brings its difficulties. Those difficulties are exacerbated when the writer himself is part of that story and well-known. And when the writer is also an active politician, the challenges may seem insurmountable. How he attempted to overcome them is one of the main areas of our discussion.

Adrian Masters: Why did you choose to write about your parents and write their story?

Peter Hain: My story is relatively well known but my parents’ story is the more important one: the courage they showed, the sacrifice they made; two ordinary white South Africans, very unique amongst their relatives and friends, who made a stand and the more I got into it, the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Well, we ought to tell their story,’ which is what I tried to do.

Is it the sort of story that’s been forgotten in the development of South Africa in the last 20 years?

In a way, yes, because Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, his ascendency to the presidency, the miracle of South Africa’s transformation from evil to hope, is the big story. But then those people, a handful of whites, joined by Nelson Mandela’s African colleagues, continually resisted apartheid at the time when it was really difficult and at that period when my mum and dad were most active, in Pretoria in the early 1960s, it was really, really tough.

Did you find it difficult to write about, difficult to go over some of these memories with them?

My mother particularly found it very emotional going over some of the detail, and remembering it all. She’s got a photographic memory so that was great for me as an author and I learnt a lot about it as well. I understood more why they did what they did, although in the end the book doesn’t fully explain it, that they felt their values, their sense of duty was the really important thing. In a way they were a product of a certain era when those family values, those questions of what’s right and wrong, and a sense of duty and loyalty, values which are not necessarily as strong as they once were.

The book ends with a question: why? Why is unanswered isn’t it?  There is still no answer; they still can’t explain why they did what they did.

They can’t explain, and I can only partly explain by telling the story and allowing the reader to make up his or her own mind. I think it comes down to the fact that they were just people of decency, people of morality and people whose values meant they couldn’t desert others when what they saw around them was so evil. But the interesting thing is, most white south Africans, by that I mean 99.9% of white South Africans under Apartheid, enjoyed the life and went along with it, the most privileged existence in the world with a virtual servant class underneath them, serving them, and turned a blind eye to everything as to be fair most people do most of the time to injustice when it appears.

Their involvement and their campaigning got them very close to some difficult times certainly, when violence was used, when force was used. Was that difficult for you and for them to revisit, did you question them and their involvement; whether or not they approved, whether or not they were involved in violence or use of force themselves?

Both my parents, my father especially, was vehemently opposed to any violence. Even when, under the violence of apartheid, younger more radical colleagues [took up arms,] frustrated at the suppression, the police state attack on all resistance, Nelson Mandela being in prison and the opposition being locked down really. A lot of younger members took up arms, blew up pylons and government installations. One, a close friend, planted a bomb on Johannesburg railway station. And my parents absolutely opposed that and they argued with colleagues who tried to recruit them to it because they felt that violence would simply play in to the hands of the state, as I am afraid it did.

That friend of theirs was John Harris, and they remained supportive and friendly with his widow and his son throughout the whole of their lives. It must have been morally and ethically very difficult for them, and for you, to know that they had to deal with that.

Well it was a classic choice for any individuals in their position: their loyalty to their friend, standing by his baby son and his wife, yet vehemently disagreeing with what he had done. Even though the bomb he had planted on Johannesburg railway station killed an old lady and maimed a young girl and injured others, he had telephoned a 15 minute warning and said ‘Clear the station,’ because he wanted to demonstrate a protest not to kill people. The state deliberately, evidence [later] showed, let it happen.  [My parents] disagreed with it but they were not going to abandon a friend and I think that’s their old fashioned sense of loyalty and duty, which came to the fore. They would never forget a friend.

And did you ever feel that they were in any way complicit with that violence?

Not at all.

Through their friendship?

Not at all. I mean the violence of apartheid was attacking them, a lot of their friends being tortured, injured, killed, jailed and yet they felt it wasn’t right and it wouldn’t be effective. They understood why Nelson Mandela went underground and his African National Congress colleagues took up the armed struggle. They supported that but they thought for them, in that situation, and their white colleagues it was not the right course. And yet they were not going to abandon a friend.

It seems quite strange and takes a bit of getting used to because we know that it’s you [who is writing about ‘Peter’] Did you feel that it gave you some distance when you had to write about quite personal things to you?

I was determined not to make the story about me. I had written my own memoirs and I don’t need to say anything more about myself. If I had put more of myself in there, more of my own feelings, then that would have got away from the main story which is about my parents. And yes there were times when my wife Elizabeth said to me, looking at a draft – she’s a fantastic editor, supporter and critic – ‘No, you are too much in that bit, take it out’. That was very valuable advice because writing about your parents is not easy.  It’s not straight forward: you are trying to be objective, trying to tell a story and yet you are part of the story and your allegiances are very clear. I mean I am proud of what they did, I think they were amazing, they were amazing as parents by the way, not just when I was a kid but well into adulthood indeed now. Nevertheless I had to tell the story as it was.

And how did you get the story, from their diaries and letters or did you sit your parents down and interview them?

I had to sit my parents down and interview them.

It must have been strange.

It was a bit, yes. With my dad there was no problem. He was enthusiastic; he’s a wonderful writer. He got to writing all sorts of things and correcting things and he would sit for hours. To drag my mother, to immerse herself in it was much more difficult because for her going back to that history is emotionally extremely tough and at times she was virtually breaking down. So that was the hard part, and she didn’t focus on it, and I didn’t really get a lot of the colour and the depth and the texture from her until right towards the end when I said, ‘I’ve got to put this manuscript in, in three months time, I need you to make sure that I’ve got these things right and I need you to remember this please and that please.’ Then she really got down to it and produced some gold dust.

How different was this particularly to writing your memoirs? Politicians’ memoirs have to a certain extent be self-justificatory. How much did you feel you had to justify what your parents did in this?

I never thought I had to justify anything; I just needed to tell the story.

The other aspect of being a politician and being a writer is that you have to be very careful about the things that you write and you have to mind what you say. Were you able to switch that aspect off when you were writing, because you were writing a biography of somebody else or did you still think, ‘I’m a politician, somebody might use this against me?’

[Laughs] Well, obviously you take care about what you write in my position, but this is an honest portrayal of a very honest couple, and I didn’t ever, ever feel I was writing it for effect or trying to kind of slant something. I just told the story as it was and let it speak for itself. So, and I hope you agree, there’s nothing in it that requires [any] exaggeration or downgrading: it just tells it how it is and lets the reader follow it through and decide what they think.

Did you learn anything about your parents that you didn’t know before you started?

I learnt lots of detail and I suppose I had to confront something I never really understood, which is why they did what they did and I was not able to answer it at the end because they can’t answer it. So that was the most interesting part of it and getting to grips with being in exile was in many senses the most painful thing for my parents. My brother and sisters are very open. [In the book, Hain’s brothers and sisters speak candidly about the difficulties being the children of exiled activists. His sister Jo-anne tells of undergoing therapy in her forties.]

It wasn’t very easy for them saying what they said because when anti-apartheid activists came into exile they found it very tough. I think my mother and father survived actually as well as anybody if not better than everybody but it was still very difficult

What was happening in South Africa was an external problem and difficult to deal with but what you and your brothers and sisters went through in exile was very emotional, very painful. It must have been quite an unusual thing to write about and a painful thing to write about?

It was unusual to write about because we were telling a very personal side to our family existence. They found it quite painful and I didn’t find it easy but I think it had to be told because a lot of South African exiles really almost had their lives destroyed by exile. Some committed suicide, some resorted to alcohol, others suffered from mental illness. It’s extremely tough when you’re yanked out of your existence, out of a struggle of intensity and of comradeship where your role is very, very important and suddenly you’re stuck in cold grey rainy London and you don’t know where you are and you don’t know who you are. That’s the case for a lot of exiles. I escaped that myself and my parents were able to cope with it incredibly well, but still it was extremely difficult.

That sounds bleak but it is optimistic book isn’t it?

It is an optimistic book; it’s about the triumph of hope over evil, about the triumph of justice over injustice and freedom over tyranny. That’s their proud legacy: that in their own modest way, but important way, they helped to achieve that.

You can read Adrian Master’s review of Ad and Wal also in this issue of Wales Arts Review.