Ad and Wal by Peter Hain, book review


What makes some apparently ordinary people defy tyranny, when outwardly there is nothing to distinguish them from the majority who opt to keep quiet and get along?

The cover of Peter Hain’s biography of his parents, Adelaine and Walter, shows a couple who appear utterly typical English-speaking white South Africans of the 1950s – Ad in a gingham cotton dress, Wal in ultra-short shorts and a bushy moustache. Yet somehow they lacked the wilful blindness of all but a handful of their peers to the injustice on which their privilege rested.

When Ad and Wal were asked to help the victims of apartheid, says their son, they gave no thought to where it might lead. Rather than any ideology, they were driven by “their values of caring, decency, fairness and, perhaps equally important, their sense of duty”. It isolated them from their fellow whites, and even from their own families, but won them the friendship and respect of non-white South Africans, including Nelson Mandela.

As they discovered the lengths to which the regime was prepared to go, particularly when 69 protesters were shot dead at Sharpeville in 1960, it did not occur to the couple to back down. “Once we had got involved, one thing led to another,” they told the author. “There was always some injustice to be tackled, so we got stuck in. People asked you to do things, and so you did.”

Ad and Wal even sheltered escaping members of underground sabotage groups, while refusing to engage in violence themselves. But they unquestioningly supported their friend, John Harris, the only white to be executed in the fight against apartheid: he planted a bomb at Johannesburg station which killed an elderly woman, despite telephoned warnings. Perhaps to suggest the source of his parents’ determination, Hain opens his book with a sickeningly detailed account of Harris’s hanging.

Inevitably, persecution of the Hains grew as the white government sought to stamp out all opposition. Their phone was tapped, security police camped outside their home, and in 1963 Ad was “banned” – prevented from writing for publication, visiting courts or black townships, or meeting more than one person at a time. Wal suffered the same fate a year later, and when he found that employers were afraid to give him work as an architect, the family was forced to leave for Britain on a one-way ticket.

As the eldest of the four children, Hain witnessed much himself, but insists on seeing events through his parents’ eyes. He writes with understanding of the loss of status and purpose they suffered in exile, but his decision to refer to himself throughout in the third person becomes a strain as he takes the lead in campaigning against Springbok sports tours of Britain, with Ad and Wal in supporting roles. There is a final jump forward a quarter of a century to the moment when the couple can return to the homeland they thought they might never see again, one which has embraced the principles they struggled for.

Peter has to admit that his parents, while proud that he became a government minister after 1997, never embraced “New Labour”, and disagreed eloquently with his defence of the Iraq war. What they thought of his seamless switch from Blair to Brown can only be surmised, but this affectionate memoir makes clear that the family has come through the worst of times unbowed.