Peter Hain on South Africa, rugby protests and why he believes he was framed for bank robbery

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In a story straight out of John Le Carré, a former Welsh MP has revealed that a British spy chief confirmed to him that it was South African security forces who’d tried to frame him for bank robbery in the 1970s. 

Before he became the MP for Neath, Peter Hain had been a leading campaigner against the apartheid system in South Africa. He’s written about his experiences in a new book, ‘A Pretoria Boy.’

Peter Hain leading a demonstration outside England v Wales match at Twickenham in 1974 Credit: PA Archive

As a young student, after he and his family were exiled from apartheid South Africa he led anti-apartheid campaigns and became notorious for trying to disrupt Springbok rugby matches, including here in Wales. 

“The roughest of all the demonstrations was at Swansea, at St Helens in November, 1969, and it was an awful confrontation, the police dragging demonstrators off the ground and throwing them to rugby stewards who properly meted out a vicious beating up.

“One had his jaw broken and other nearly lost an eye. It was very very horrible and brutal and changed the course of the rest of the tour. Policing became more responsible and demonstrators were hemmed in, but nevertheless, that tour was heavily disrupted and it led to the cancellation of the white South African cricket for the first time that it ever happened. Neither the Springboks nor the cricketers ever came back again. Until Nelson Mandela became president of the country.”

Peter Hain leaving the Old Bailey in 1976 Credit: PA Archive

Amongst other things, his notoriety led to a bizarre trial in 1976 when he was charged and cleared of a bank robbery. In his new book he reveals that a spy chief told him what must have happened. 

“Years later when I was a Foreign Office Minister, the director general of MI5, Steven Lambert confirmed to me that it was probably the South Africans who’d done it, and that I should ask them about it. 

“Unfortunately, all the records have been destroyed under the old apartheid regime, so we'll never know the exact truth, but it was a pretty horrible and Kafkaesque experience of being charged with something you knew nothing about, and ending up in the Old Bailey for two weeks.”

With the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela, a family friend, as President, Peter Hain’s relationship with South Africa recovered. 

Nelson Mandela arriving at Cardiff City Hall when he received the freedom of the city in 1998 Credit: PA Archive

In the 1990s, by then a minister in Tony Blair’s government, he escorted Mandela on his visit to Cardiff. 

“My task was to introduce him to a line of VIPs, the mayor, the leader of the council, the Secretary of State for Wales, and so on. And he stopped, the sun sweltering, all of us to start conducting some primary school children dressed in Welsh traditional dressed to twinkle twinkle little star, and that was just vintage Nelson Mandela, a unique leader, and probably the icon of our generation of leaders, globally.”

As an MP, as Welsh Secretary and more recently in the house of Lords, Peter Hain has been a leading figure in Welsh and British politics for decades. But he says he can’t ever shake off his roots. 

“I’ve spent more of my life in Wales than anywhere else in the world of South Africa, my childhood, my parents anti apartheid activism their arrest their banning our exile then my stop the Springbok tour activity all means it's very much shaped me, and influenced my political trajectory.”

Peter Hain's new book looks at his life in and out of South Africa