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Lord Hain: ‘The leaders who have been most impressive in this crisis have been the ones who have genuinely shown compassion’

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Lord Hain: ‘The leaders who have been most impressive in this crisis have been the ones who have genuinely shown compassion’

Lord Hain is a veteran campaigner against Apartheid and one of the architects of the peace settlement in Northern Ireland. In a recent podcast he spoke to our sister publication African Business about what he learned from South Africa’s reconciliation process and the crucial role of strong personal principles for good governance. Peter Doerrie reports.

There are few people with a more distinguished career in UK politics than Lord Peter Hain. An MP for Neath for 24 years, he served in the cabinets of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and in 2015 was nominated for a life peerage. But his formative years were spent far away from Westminster.

“I am a son of Africa,” says Lord Hain, who was born in 1950 to South African parents, Adelaine and Walter Vannet Hain, in Kenya. His parents, fervent anti-apartheid activists, soon returned to South Africa. After several arrests and facing financial ruin due to a de facto occupational ban on Peter’s father, an architect, the family was forced into exile when Peter was 16.

Peter soon followed in his parents’ footsteps, becoming a leader of the UK’s anti-apartheid movement. “We focused especially on disrupting the appearance of all-white South African sports teams like the Springboks through direct actions like pitch invasions,” Lord Hain remembers in his conversation with African Business Podcast. A private prosecution at the Old Bailey financed by apartheid-supporting white South Africans later found him guilty of criminal conspiracy related to the campaign, resulting in a fine of £200.

Lord Hain escaped more serious legal ramifications after a plot by the South African Bureau of State Security to frame him for a bank robbery failed. A letter bomb sent to him in 1972 didn’t explode due to faulty wiring.

While his transition to party politics was smooth and his rise from being the winner of a by-election in 1991 to a career in cabinet lasting 12 years was rapid, his family history, personal experience, and activism have been evident throughout his influential political life. As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he helped negotiate the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement, furthering the peace process initiated by the Good Friday Agreement.

The example of South Africa’s negotiated end to Apartheid had a profound influence on his approach, Lord Hain says. “What is really impressive both in South Africa and Northern Ireland is that people came together to pull in the same direction, instead of continuing the conflict,” he argues.

“Violent conflicts can only rarely be won by one party outright. Most require a negotiated solution. This is where my passion and commitment to good governance comes in. During Apartheid, bad governance created a chasm of inequality, of poverty, of racism in society. And after the end of a conflict, the question is, how do you move forward, how do you create a better society?”

‘Zuma institutionalised corruption’

Lord Hain says that good governance is a crucial aspect of conflict resolution, which is why he has watched South Africa’s trajectory under former President Jacob Zuma with great dismay.

“He institutionalised corruption and cronyism on an absolutely massive scale. He plundered the country and rendered a lot of its systems of administration and governance, from the national to local level, dysfunctional.”

This is why, he says, the current President, Cyril Ramaphosa, has a difficult task, having to navigate a global pandemic in a country that has massive inequality, a legacy of the apartheid regime, and weaker state institutions that have been damaged by Zuma’s ten years in power.

Lord Hain became intimately involved in the effort to dismantle the scandal surrounding Zuma and the undue influence of some businessmen and other cronies, that they called ‘State Capture‘. He testified before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture in 2019, alleging “massive complicity of international financial and other institutions, global corporates and foreign governments.”

His testimony was instrumental in shining the light on the involvement of international consultancies like KPMG and McKinsey & Co., which profited handsomely from enabling the corruption of South African politicians and business people.

He was also key to holding UK Public Relations firm Bell Pottinger accountable. He says that Bell Pottinger ironically made a cardinal mistake, forgetting about its own reputation while advising others on how to manage theirs. The firm’s role in South Africa’s state capture scandal eventually led to it losing high-profile clients and ultimately, its bankruptcy.

While Covid-19 has not hit the African continent as hard as Asia, Europe, and parts of the Americas, Lord Hain worries that it may be a question of time. He fears that the public sector in most African countries doesn’t have the necessary capacity to introduce much more than lockdowns that don’t solve anything.

While they can give politicians time to develop the policies required to react to the pandemic and ramp up the health sector’s capacity for treatment and testing – and for that he commends the early actions taken in Africa including in South Africa – lockdowns in and of themselves need to be managed carefully to avoid, on the other side, economic devastation, he argues.

Even more than elsewhere, in Africa, “the people who will pay the heaviest price are the people who always do: the poorest and those who have been exploited and are living very deprived lives.”

A return to Keynesianism

For Lord Hain, it is evident that there can be no return to the “old normal, the world of global neoliberalism,” which he sees at the root of many of the world’s and Africa’s contemporary problems. Like after the Second World War, he thinks that worldwide, there is a need to create a robust public sector alongside and in cooperation with a healthy and thriving private sector.

“When it came to this crisis, the government that had been attacking people like me for arguing against their policy of austerity, found the magic money tree, didn’t they,” he laughs. He sees the value of a Keynesian approach to economics as self-evident in the light of the impact of Covid-19.

Still, he cautions that the trillions of government stimulus that will be spent worldwide only increase the need for good governance and investments into well-run and sustainably financed public services and institutions.

The principles of good governance

Just as Jacob Zuma played a pivotal role in South Africa’s regime of systematic bad governance, Lord Hain argues that leaders will have to shoulder individual responsibility for how their countries will emerge from the pandemic. “The leaders who have been most impressive in this crisis have been the ones who have genuinely shown compassion, who display integrity, who exude trust and who are committed to transparency and equal opportunities.”

He is convinced that these qualities will translate into more successful economic recoveries in countries like Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand, compared to those run by so-called populists and strongmen like US President Donald Trump, Russia’s Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Ultimately,” Lord Hain cautions, “what is true for government ministers is also true in private business: if you are not committed to the principles of good governance, you can’t succeed. You may get rich quickly in a minority of cases, but you won’t be able to sustain your reputation, your happiness as an individual, and your relationship with others.” 

Listen to the full interview on the podcast Global governance and leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic with Lord Peter Hain

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