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Lord Hain’s first foray into thriller writing, ‘The Rhino Conspiracy’, is a story of international poaching and governmental corruption. The former anti-Apartheid campaigner tells Gary Connor what inspired him to write about the battle to save the rhino.
When Peter Hain stepped down from the House of Commons in 2015, he and wife Elizabeth Haywood had a safari holiday of a lifetime, visiting three parks in Botswana and South Africa. At the last of these, Thula Thula in the country’s eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, the idea for a new book began to germinate.
There were two armed guards with the rhino 24/7… it’s a war zone
“I saw these rhinos just chomping away peacefully in this beautiful wildlife setting,” he says. “But there were two armed guards with them 24/7. I knew about poaching in a way but I didn’t realise, as one of them put it, that it’s a war zone.”
That has led to The Rhino Conspiracy, Hain’s first foray into thriller writing after putting his name to over 20 other books. It’s the story of international poaching, endorsed at the highest level of a fictional corrupt South African government. The real life numbers are stark: over 6,000 rhinos have been killed there in the last decade. Their horns fetch up to $60k per kilo in Vietnam.
In recent years Hain has spent more time in the country of his childhood and realised the extent to which Nelson Mandela’s values and legacy have been “prostituted and betrayed” under President Zuma, who was forced from office in 2018. The book is Hain’s attempt to explain the realities of poaching and how closely it is intertwined with unscrupulous politicians.
Many of the characters are based on real life figures, including the ‘Veteran’, an elderly ANC politician who feels forced to speak out, despairing at what he sees happening. “He’s a good friend of mine,” says Hain, “but I’m keeping it to myself. A lot of well-informed South Africans, especially people of my generation, will know who this is.” The heroine, Thandi, is fictional but is an amalgamation of many of the bright young women who Hain has met and who he says offer an “inspiring future for the country”.
One character whose origins are easier to identify is Bob Richards, a Labour MP, who uses parliamentary privilege to expose the extent of wrongdoing. During the passage of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill in 2017, Hain stood up in the Lords and exposed money laundering by British-based companies that fuelled corruption in South Africa. “There’s a lot in the book of my experience and knowledge of the anti-apartheid struggle, as well as my knowledge of British politics,” he adds.
Zuma awaits trial over corruption allegations and Hain feels confident that his successor as president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a politician in the Mandela mould. “That legacy and vision has to be restored, because otherwise international investors will continue to be worried and the country’s economy will continue to slide. It has huge potential.”
I wonder why Hain thinks South Africa seems rarely mentioned in a British foreign policy context now. He stresses that he isn’t making a party-political point but thinks that the government has “turned its back on Africa”.
“African and South African leaders generally just don’t take Britain seriously any more, in a way that they did under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and even before that too,” he believes.
“Boris Johnson and his ministers don’t seem as interested as they should be, because, in this crazy Brexit adventure, we’re going to need all the trade we can get with new markets in continents like Africa.”
It doesn’t spoil the plot to say that The Rhino Conspiracy is left open-ended. Is a sequel already in the works? Hain explains that it took a few years to write, around his busy schedule in the Lords, his commitments in Wales where he still lives, and his seven grandchildren.
“I’m not like the top thriller writers who can turn out a book a year,” he laughs. “But let’s see how the book goes. If there’s a desire there, who knows, maybe!”
Lord Hain is a Labour member of the House of Lords.