Peter Hain

Values, Duty, Sacrifice in Apartheid South Africa by Peter Hain

Biteback Publishing, 384pp, £18.99

Peter Hain‘In one sense,’ Peter Hain writes about his parents, Adelaine and Walter, ‘Ad and Wal were a remarkably conventional, almost traditional couple. She cooked and supervised the maid doing the washing and cleaning. He didn’t do any cooking at all. She put up with the kids during the day, he would enjoy them after work and at weekends.’ 

How then do such ‘remarkably conventional’ people become enemies of the South African state, briefly imprisoned, constantly harassed by the security services and ultimately forced into exile? Their son has tried to answer that question in this book.

There are few clues in Walter Hain’s family background: Scottish, working class immigrants to South Africa who accepted the colonial notions of race without question.

His eyes were clearly opened to the unequal treatment of black South African soldiers dying in the Second World War. And he was profoundly affected by the death of his close friend, Lanky, in a bomb attack in Italy, an attack from which Walter himself only narrowly escaped. Peter Hain is certain that these wartime experiences shaped Walter’s later outlook on life.

Much of the detail of this period, by the way, is based on Walter’s own accounts in his diary. This is a diary that he wasn’t supposed to keep, an order that he ignored in an early act of rebellion. Thank goodness he did, because not only is the first-hand account compelling, but his sketches are exquisite and would be impressive in any context, let alone having been drawn while on active service. Their inclusion in this volume is inspired.

Adelaine’s background is different. Her family was strongly religious. She mixed with different races from an early age and became used to treating black people as equals without realizing the political implications of doing so. Later she questioned and gradually abandoned her faith after seeing family members use it to justify prejudice. But a religious belief in equality, however haphazardly applied by others, certainly formed some of her early ideas.

Perhaps one early sign that the Hains weren’t as conventional as they appeared came in the form of their marathon drive through Africa. In 1951 they set off from Nairobi where they’d been living, with one-year-old Peter perched on the family’s belongings, and drove several thousand miles back to South Africa in a beaten-up, fifteen year-old car which repeatedly broke down, ran out of fuel or simply fell apart. Hilarious and occasionally frightening, the journey allowed young Ad and Wal to see much more of the continent than they might have otherwise, and the different ways Africans were treated in the states they passed through.

Soon afterwards they drifted into politics, finding a sympathetic home for their developing political views in the Liberal party. Following a short stay in England, they find themselves ‘falling into’ leading rôles in the party.

Parallel to their increasing politicization, the attempt to formalize racial distinctions into a legal system of separation known as ‘Apartheid’ was gradually developing in South Africa.

Events such as an abortive attempt to find a theological basis for Apartheid, and the draining and refilling of Pretoria swimming pool after the Japanese water polo team were allowed to use it, show how this creeping apartheid forced white liberals like the Hains to decide whether or not to speak out or act. Each time, they choose to take a stand.

At first, Ad is more prominent and more active: helping black prisoners and their families to get bail, legal help, food and chocolate bars. Her willingness to get involved and a similar willingness in other white campaigners had a powerful impact on those who later became leaders in post-apartheid South Africa. Dikgang Moseneke who is now Deputy Chief Justice in South Africa’s supreme court, is quoted as saying,>

She did much to form my own notions of a non-racial South Africa because suddenly she criss-crossed, she cut across lines that we thought were eternal.

Adelaine is shown to be resourceful, quick-witted and courageous. Her activism may have begun with visits and help to families, supplying food and clothes to prisoners. But in that food and clothing there were often messages on paper or in invisible ink on a handkerchief. Journalist Jill Chisholm records how,

Ad Hain taught me many things. Unusual things. Like how to peel away layers of an onion, slip a thin sliver of paper between lower layers and then ‘reconstruct’ the onion so that it appeared as complete as ever it was. Or how to unpick the stitches of a man’s shirt collar… saving the original thread … again slide a sliver of thin paper into the collar… and then re-sew it leaving no evidence it had been undone. Strange skills for someone who could pass for a carefree, suburban mother-of-four.

Both were subjected to banning orders, Adelaine first and then the both of them, preventing them associating with more than one person at a time. As the first married couple to be affected, their banning order had to be amended to allow them to meet each other!

We see the practical challenges this brings. Ad would order her meat and groceries to fit in with her weekly trips to report to the police station. Their phone was tapped, mail intercepted and the house regularly observed by police. One way they found to get around the rules was to hold ‘diplomatic’ parties in which Ad sat in the kitchen and guests were brought in to meet her one by one.

The personal cost of their activism is made painfully clear. Ad’s brother was worried that his sister’s activism would harm his business. Invitations ceased and his wife placed an advert in the Pretoria News to say the company ‘had no relationship with the Mrs Hain of the Liberal Party.’

Their children were far from immune. They were obliged to speak to intimidating special branch officers from a young age. Their toys and scrapbooks were rifled through during raids. Later Peter as the eldest was ‘co-opted’ into acting for his parents, most notably when he read the oration at John Harris’ funeral. It would be difficult to do this at any age let alone at the age of just fifteen and clearly nervous – ‘being quite a private, undemonstrative and rather shy boy.’ 

Always opposed to violence, when fellow white liberals shifted their campaign into one of sabotage, the Hains refused to join but maintained a code of ‘don’t ask questions’. It came all too close to them however when on 24 July 1964, a bomb exploded on the whites-only concourse of Johannesburg railway station. Twenty-four people were badly hurt, with one, an elderly woman, later dying of her injuries.

The man behind the bomb turned out to be a close friend of the Hains, John Harris. His wife and baby son moved in with them and their life and family became absorbed in the raw emotion of the trial, sentencing, execution and funeral of their friend and fellow campaigner. The whole episode and its aftermath proved to be a turning point both for South Africa, in that it led to reprisals and clamp downs which tightened the authorities’ grip on everyday life, and for the Hain family itself. Their son writes that, Instead of being one of many enemies, it was almost as if Ad and Wal were now the enemy.

Raids and surveillance increased, Wal lost his job and other architectural firms were told not to employ him if they wanted to win government contracts. The family came to the conclusion that exile was the only option.

Exile in London was difficult. For Ad, her rôle was very different. No longer at the centre of activity, she experienced a sense of deep disappointment and loss which only eased when the anti-apartheid campaign in the UK took flight in the 1970s and ’80s.

And there was a profound impact on Ad and Wal’s children. ‘Exile left us rootless,’ Sally Hain is quoted as saying. A culture clash meant that, as they entered their teens, they found that parents who were very liberal in South Africa weren’t quite so liberal in swinging Sixties London.

In a series of long interviews with his siblings, Peter Hain quotes his brother Tom saying that his parents  ‘seemed to change completely when we got to England’ so that ‘everything I did was wrong.’ Jo-anne’s problems saw her undergoing counseling and therapy in her forties. And Sally says,
In South Africa often it was us four kids with Mom and Dad against the world. But in London we were just individuals who happened to be part of the same family … [it was a] huge anticlimax and disappointment.

Hain says he’s set out to write a story, which means the book is characterized as much by what it is not as what it is. It’s not a history of Apartheid-era South Africa. It’s not a book about the ANC or Nelson Mandela. It’s not Peter Hain’s autobiography. Instead it’s the story of two remarkable individuals.

Ad and Wal has the strong dramatic structure of a novel. After the execution of John Harris, all seems lost to the Hains: their campaigning has failed, their party has disbanded, the ANC has been forced underground, its leaders imprisoned and the family find themselves in exile.

But there is a renewal. The campaign takes on a different form in a different country and this time it’s their son Peter who plays the leading rôle. They find themselves working with him and later, when he becomes a government minister, Ad works for him. They’ve lived to see the end of apartheid, the start of majority rule and they’ve been able to return to South Africa.

Peter Hain writes in a fluid and unadorned style. Sometimes that means he reaches too easily for clichés; people are frequently described as feeling ‘numb,’ reacting with ‘blank hopelessness’ or turning ‘white with shock.’

He has a good eye for telling details, such as the ‘crimson leather’ of the court building; ‘the whitewashed cell’ in its basement or the touching moment when John Harris and his wife Ann are able to talk – or rather whisper – freely because they’re allowed to put their arms around each other. Then there’s the sight of the hangman amongst visitors to the court and Ann Harris sitting and staring, ‘her foot constantly swinging back and forth.’

It’s important to remark on one unusual stylistic feature: every reference to Hain himself is in the third person; when he features in the story, he is ‘Peter,’ never ‘I’. In my interview with him elsewhere in this edition of Wales Arts Review, Hain explains that he adopted this technique in order to stop the story becoming about him.

It certainly distances him from the narrative and can occasionally provide for a discomfiting and awkward relationship between reader and author. After the Johannesburg station bomb he writes that,
Peter – having heard the news on a radio in the boys’ bedroom – rushed to seek reassurance from his parents, not really thinking that they would be involved but needing to hear them say so and finding them both very upset.

As a reader you sometimes want Peter the author to reveal more about the feelings of Peter the boy.

This is a very personal story, as much a love story as one of protest and politics. Ad and Wal’s campaigning comes from their own deep instincts for right and wrong, and their strength comes from their profound love and attachment for each other over the course of a long and eventful marriage. In the present day, their son pictures them coping with 21st century technology, Wal writing letters by hand, Ad transcribing them into emails or texts and he remarks:

‘Inseparable in struggle, they remained inseparable.’

Illustration by Dean Lewis