The quiet rebels who opposed apartheid


History is replete with the most ordinary people carrying out the most extraordinary actions. Adelaine and Walter Hain, English-speaking white South Africans, spent years trying to protect anti-apartheid activists. Their heroics were low-key – hosting meetings, visiting prisoners, smuggling messages – but their constancy was admirable. The story of Ad and Wal is told by their better-known son, Peter, who came to the fore in the 1970s with his campaign against South African sports and rose to become a member of Tony Blair’s cabinet.


The pivotal moments of the apartheid regime, from the Sharpeville massacre to the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, are well documented. This account spans these events and more, but its focus lies elsewhere. It is the small acts of cruelty and kindness that make this narrative so captivating.


The more active the Hain family became in fighting apartheid, the more debilitating and vindictive were the restrictions imposed on them. Special branch officers were regular visitors to their home, burly men with menacing voices, and on occasion Hain’s parents were taken in for questioning. Banned from public meetings and other activities “calculated to further the aims of communism”, Wal, an architect, was forced to watch young Peter playing sports from his parked car outside the school playing fields.


The pettiness of the apartheid regime’s attempt at racial segregation is well told. One couple, Fabian Ribeiro, a doctor, and his wife, Florence, were an extremely rare breed – wealthy blacks. Non-whites were not allowed to own a house in their township, send their children to the school of their choice or take their family on holiday, since there were no resorts for them. So the Ribeiros drove a Mercedes and dressed well. The problem was that non-whites were not allowed to try on clothes before purchasing. So Pretoria’s top clothes shop, which wanted Florence’s custom, arranged secret fittings for her after hours.


With so many comrades, black and white, in detention, Ad found ingenious ways of getting messages through to them by way of food parcels. She put pencil lead inside a sausage to enable one of the detainees to write. She took “the pith out of an orange, gluing it back after inserting a message inside, or after cooking a whole onion, sliding a note between the leaves to be covered as it cooled”.


The most horrific incident in the book is the hanging of their close friend John Harris, the only white man to be executed for political insurrection by the apartheid regime. The book begins with a graphic description of his last moments and the contortions of the dead body. Harris did plant a bomb in July 1964 at the whites-only concourse at Johannesburg railway station, killing an elderly woman and injuring two dozen other people. He had wanted to create a political moment, but not to kill. He had phoned through a warning to the authorities but they deliberately ignored it, calculating that the prospect of whites dying from terrorism would allow them to clamp down further. Eventually the harassment became too much for Ad and Wal, who left their homeland for Britain with a heavy heart. At this point the author becomes a leading light in the anti-apartheid struggle, but his use of the third person to describe his own activities, and even his personality, does jar.


That criticism aside, this is a beguiling book that casts a light not just on the politics of the time but on human motivation. There were some in the Hains’ circle, including members of their extended family, who shunned them for causing trouble. Others betrayed their friends, testifying against them either to secure their own release or plea bargain, or out of cowardice. Yet there were more who did what they could to stand up against injustice, including the unassuming but dogged Wal and Ad.