Peter Hain Talks About His Book, Mandela: His Essential Life

Review by Roger Smith: Wimbledon BookFest

Wimbledon's significant South African community, along with some "Saffas" from further afield and a few veteran British anti-apartheid campaigners, ensured there was a packed audience for the Wimbledon Bookfest talk by Peter Hain about his new book, Mandela: His Essential Life.

Hain, the Labour former cabinet minister Lord Hain, provided an engaging account of his work to a crowd where grey hair and walking sticks were much in evidence. Many present clearly had lived through a large part of the life and times of Nelson Mandela and were familiar with the story of the Xhosa herdboy, born 100 years ago, who rose to become the leader of his country and an outstanding figure on the world stage.

Peter Hain on Mandela at Wimbledon BookfestBut Hain, to his credit, never assumed a knowledge of the people and events he described, summing tales up with consummate ease in a way which kept them fresh and alive even where they might have been known already to listeners.

Being able to cover a span of a century in the short time available, just as he attempts to do in his book of only 200 or so pages, was no mean feat. It takes a keen journalistic ability to capture stories with brevity while keeping them coherent and intelligible. If Hain's eloquent talk is anything to go by, it should be something he achieves in his book.

After all, the clue is in the title - this is an attempt to distill Mandela's story down to its essence, in a digestible form. Given the volumes of material already written about Mandela, when the question may be asked, what more can be added, this does seem to be a worthwhile effort, especially as time passes and younger generations arise for whom Mandela is a distant legend.

Hain comes to his subject with a very distinct perspective as an anti-apartheid leader who grew up in South Africa and experienced exile along with his parents Adelaine and Walter, who moved to Putney in London in the 1960s after being subjected to banning orders by the South African state.

Hain's talk was peppered with interesting personal references, starting with welcoming his aunt Jo, aged 90, to the gathering. He paid tribute to his parents, to whom his book is dedicated.

In one of the brief anecdotes which evoked the madness of the apartheid regime, Hain recalled how as a 13-year-old he was called upon to escort visiting ambassadors to see his mother one-by-one in the kitchen of the family home in Johannesburg, in order to avoid breaching her banning order.

In talking about the brutality of the system, he referred to the assassination of opponents of the state including Ruth First, killed by a letter bomb, and noted chillingly that the same type of letter bomb had been sent to him in Putney but fortunately the trigger mechansim had a fault - otherwise he might not have been around today.

Turning to Mandela's time in prison, Hain said Mandela had told him how important it was to the political prisoners when they found out that people in the anti-apartheid movement abroad were keeping the torch of freedom alive. The prisoners had been subjected to a news blackout but the sports boycott had enraged their rugby-loving warders, who accused them of responsibility, thus unwittingly transmitting the news that thousands of people in Britain supported them.

Hain offered various insights into Mandela's life, noting, for example that his appearance on release from prison as a grey-haired African grandfather overshadowed his image as a freedom fighter while not actually airbrushing it out. he said people saw for the first time that generosity of spirit for which Mandela became famous.

Hain said he believed it was no accident Mandela was released in February 1990 after the end of the Cold War, highlighting how Cold War politics had played into the conflict in southern Africa. The ANC had sought help from Moscow and Beijing while the apartheid regime painted themselves as defencing the West against communism. But all that had changed after the fall of the Berlin wall and the West put pressure on Pretoria to make a deal.

Focusing on the famous episode when, after becoming President, Mandela appeared at the Rugby World Cup in a South African rugby jersey and cap, Hain said Mandela had carried out the hugely symbolic act against the wishes of his advisers.~

This constituted true leadership, not "followship", he said. Leaders went "out in front" and took people with them, rather than following them. In an aside, he accused Prime Minister Theresa May of failing in this repect over Brexit.
Hain described himself as ANC by temperament - but he was unstinting in his criticism of failures in the post-apartheid era, particularly President Thabo Mbeki's handling of the Aids crisis and the "absolute disaster" of President Jacob Zuma "looting the country shamelessly".

He said he knew Mandela had been "horrified" by Zuma's behaviour. It is telling that the last chapter of Hain's book is entitled, "Legacy betrayed?"

His small book may go some way to help protect that legacy, particularly if it can be read by people much younger than the majority at his talk. Perhaps it should be on reading lists for schools, particularly in South Africa.

Mandela: His Essential Life by Peter Hain

Rowman & Littlefied £9.99

Wimbledon BookFest runs until October 14. Tickets are on sale at

October 12, 2018