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The Rhino in the room

Peter Hain arriving for a meeting with the Taoiseach in his time as Northern Ireland Secretary.

Former cabinet minister and Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Peter Hain told David Hennessy why he thinks Nelson Mandela would turn in his grave if he saw some of what South Africa has become, why it is heart breaking for people like him who have worked on the peace process in Northern Ireland to see it put at risk by Brexit and all about his debut novel, The Rhino Conspiracy.

“I think he would be turning in his grave,” Lord Peter Hain says when asked how the late Nelson Mandela would react if he could see how his country has been destroyed by corruption, betraying all the principles of his freedom struggle.

Peter says he believes Mandela was aware of the problems before he passed even if he didn’t appreciate how severe they were or were becoming.

“That’s a much used cliche, but he would be absolutely pained and deeply angry about it. And he had become aware, in his last days about the problem, but because he was quite frail. I don’t think he realized the extent of it.

“If he had seen it today, everything that he’d fought for being betrayed…”

Former President of South Africa Jacob Zuma is currently on trial for corruption.

“It’s a wonderful country to visit and amazing people, and you can have the best holiday of your life. But it could have been so much better had all this looting and corruption not occurred.

“At the moment, there’s a lot of power outages, electricity outages. And that is because basically, the electricity, the main electricity provider, which is a state’s enterprise was looted and neglected. And it has had to be bailed out by taxpayers. And that’s true, right the way through the state sector: The water system, the airways, the whole lot. And that is all due to bad governance.”

The Kenyan-born/South African-raised former cabinet minister and Lord writes about the issue of political corruption and how it furthers the lucrative poaching of rhinos in his debut novel, The Rhino Conspiracy.

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“I think wildlife lovers and animal lovers will obviously be desperately concerned about the plight of the rhino and the threat that it faces along with elephants and lions and tigers and a lot of other precious species.

“But I don’t think they necessarily understand the wider criminal political situation. The rhino’s a victim, as are other very important animal species, victim of rampant international crime protected by a political corruption. And that is true throughout Africa. And it’s true in Asia as well.

“The problem in the end comes down to bad governance that allows or turns a blind eye or is taking backhanders from the International criminals. So I hope that it will open the eyes of other wildlife lovers to the source of the problem as well.”

Peter moved to the UK in the 1970s and he became a leading anti-apartheid activist.

He then went into politics becoming a cabinet minister for Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Since standing down as an MP in 2015, he has sat in the House of Lords and still lives in his former constituency of Neath in Wales.

He has written numerous works of non-fiction but The Rhino Conspiracy is his first thriller.

The Rhino Conspiracy sees Thandi, a bold and determined young black woman recruited to expose the trade of the corrupt poaching chiefs.

While this is his first book of fiction, the issue is very much real and Peter has based characters on real life people.

“It’s based on research on the kind of thing that happens. There’s a lot of it that is drawn from real life.

“When I stepped down as an MP in 2015, because Ed Miliband asked me to go to the Lord’s, we had a bit of a break, my wife and I, and we went out on safari to a safari park in kwazulu Natal, which, which is called Tula Tula.

“And we saw these rhinos chomping away in the bush, and we were taken there to find them. And I realized that there were 24 hour armed guards on them. And the rangers were talking to us about it. And I was asking them questions, and I sort of realized how serious the rhino threat was, that they do face extinction.


“And then I was becoming much, much more aware and angry about the degree of corruption under former President Zuma, which was just rampant and how it betrayed the values of the freedom struggle.

“So it was putting those two together that gave me the idea of writing this thriller.

“I’m not sufficiently authoritative on poaching to be able to write something about poaching and nor do I think that a book about corruption because there are investigative journalists in South Africa who have written books and written investigative articles that exposed at all.

“So I thought that the way to really tell these stories is to tie them together and to hopefully take the reader through a page turning read which  gives some insights on both subjects and on the historical context to it all.”

South Africa has the largest population of rhinos in the world. Rhino horn can fetch up to $60,000 per kilo in Vietnam. In the last decade over 6,000 rhinos have been killed in South African.

“And it was actually in the course of researching that I realized how the local poachers on the ground are seen as the villains but actually they are the fodder of these international crime syndicates, which are all equipped on the same level as drug dealers, terrorism, human traffickers and organized criminals.

“It is really big crime, fed by this insatiable demand in East Asia for rhino horn powder. It can be used for all sorts of nefarious reasons, as I’ve described in the book, such as cocaine substitutes and aphrodisiacs and for hangovers, and all sorts of things, which I can’t quite believe that the powder actually, you know, cures all those, those elements, or is actually effective. Most of it’s completely fictional itself.

Peter describes his part in the peace process as Northern Ireland Secretary as his proudest moment.

“Like the drugs trade is fuelled by Western consumers in the main, poaching is fed by the demand in East Asia, China, Vietnam, and many in the neighbourhood.

“I think people are beginning to realize we’re the most disruptive species in history, and on earth. And we are threatening the very future of our natural world. We can’t exist without that natural world being in balance.

“COVID, which has wreaked havoc with all of our lives, is a product really of messing with nature. As is climate change. We’ve been selfish. Just as the consumers of rhino powder are being selfish, and people who want tiger claws are being selfish, or rhino claws, or lion claws or ivory from elephants. It’s a selfish sort of fetish, which is at the root of all of this, and it is actually now threatening our own future. And our own way of life. So this, this is all connected.”

The Irish World wonders if it bothers Peter to see the country he was raised in have such problems. He speaks about the country’s beauty but does it feel like we only see or hear about South Africa for negative reasons? “Well, that’s the same with everything, isn’t it? The island of Ireland is never in the news for its beauty or its culture. It’s in the news because of threat to the peace process or whatever. And, you know, you asked about the apartheid millstone around South Africa’s neck. Well, it’s the same on the island of Ireland, isn’t it? You’re continuously haunted by the history. And it comes back to bite every so often.

“And if the peace process is and continuously managed and cared for and cultivated, then you hit the problems that Brexiters has opened up. And it’s the same in South Africa.

“If you don’t continuously drive progress forward and you allow destructive or selfish or criminal elements to undermine that, then you destabilize the whole thing.

“So I don’t think South Africa is in a worse position than most other countries. It’s got this particular apartheid legacy, which the rest of the world helped prop up during a tough century.

“But it’s also then got this corruption, this double body blow of apartheid legacy and then the corruption. It’s like a double whammy.”

Peter served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 2005 to 2007. He has described negotiating the Northern Ireland Peace Settlement in 2007 that brought Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness into office to share government as his proudest moment.

Is it heart breaking to see the peace in Northern that was worked so hard for put at risk by Brexit?

“Yes, it’s heartbreaking for any of us who were involved, not just for my period, which resulted in the 2007 settlement, but over the ten years before. And going back to John Major’s government.

“I’m very frustrated by the failure, the abject failure of the current Secretary of State, and most of his predecessors going back to 2010, with the notable exception of Julian Smith, to really get a grip of their responsibilities and to fulfill their duties as Secretary of State. And the same goes for David Cameron. And Theresa May, and Boris Johnson.

“They just thought the peace process was done and dusted. And they could kind of put it aside and concentrate on other things in the case of May and Johnson, of course, it was Brexit.

“But actually, if you choose the particular form of hard Brexit that Boris Johnson has chosen, and the DUP have unaccountably supported then you reap a bitter harvest, and that is what’s happening now.

“So I am very frustrated, and I’m angry as well, because we all gave years and years of our life to the peace process, and that I was very proud to do and we were very proud to do.

“And I’m not for one moment complaining about devoting the two years of my life and Tony Blair ten years of his: I’m proud of what we achieved.

“But you can undo that very quickly if you’re not careful.”

Having seen the injustice of apartheid from an early age, Peter was only 19 when he became chairman of the Stop The Seventies Tour campaign. The campaign aimed to disrupt the tours by the South African rugby union and cricket teams in 1969 and 1970 and strike a blow against the oppressive regime. It was successful.

Police eject spectator, Peter Hain, from the Oxford University v South Africa rugby game at Twickenham

Would Peter be an activist now? Would he have joined the Black Lives Matters protests of the last  year? “Oh yeah, Definitely. Definitely. I would have been out marching with them. And I would have had it not been for COVID rules. But I was willing them on. And I have already got involved with Extinction Rebellion as well. I think those are the two movements at the moment that I most identify with.”

Did Peter see any parallels between the more recent movement and the one he was involved with? “In some ways, yes. I think it was like a lid blowing off a pressure cooker, people had just had enough.”

Peter is already working on following up The Rhino Conspiracy.

“The publishers have asked me to write a sequel. I am engaged in that at the moment.

“There’s actually a character in the sequel from Northern Ireland.”

The Rhino Conspiracy ends with its lead character struggling with a question she does not know how to answer.

“And a lot of people said to me, ‘We want to know the answer’.

Peter protests at the Davis Cup.

“But in the meantime, I, I’m just finalizing the proofs of my South African memoir which sort of goes back to the history of my childhood and then the anti-apartheid struggle my parents waged and I took on, but then comes right up to date with exposing the corruption as I did using parliamentary privilege in the House of Lords in 2018, and money laundering so it tells that story. It’s called A Pretoria Boy. That’s published in September.”

Was it always an ambition to write crime fiction? “Yes, because I think it’s 24 books I’ve written now. But they’re about current affairs and politics and racism and apartheid. And the future of the Labour Party and the future of British politics and those kinds of things.

“When I get spare time- which isn’t often enough- I read thrillers. Because I have to read so much stuff that’s non-fiction, documents, newspaper articles, reports and so on, I just escape into the world of thrillers.

“So yes, I wanted to try to see whether I could do this.”

The Rhino Conspiracy by Peter Hain is out in paperback now on Muswell Press.

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