Africa’s rhino population is being massacred in slow motion. Lord Peter Hain’s novel is set in South Africa in the mid-1990s, when poachers and rangers were killing each other in an undeclared bush war and the only winners were those at the top. Review by Glyn Ford.
All politicians, it is said, write fiction. However, some actually write fiction novels, though only a precious few are worth reading. Lord Peter Hain falls into the last category alongside his UK Labour Party peer Chris Mullin.
Both, in their own way, were politicians because they were famous, rather than famous because they were politicians. Peter, along with my contemporary at Reading University, Hugh Geach, then both Liberals, were the leadership of the ‘Stop the Seventies Tour’, as the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain attempted – rather successfully at times – to disrupt the South African Springbok Rugby Tour and in doing so expose the true nature of the regime.
Chris Mullin’s cause was the mistrial at best, framing at worst, of the ‘Birmingham Six’ for the 1974 IRA pub bombings. His tragic literary hero was the Northern MP, Harry Perkins.
Hain is less parochial in terms of footprint and cast. The Rhino Conspiracy weaves together two stories and three characters in a smooth didactic essay across town and country.
The veld story is set around a criminal gang, under the shelter of state protection in Pretoria and Hanoi, operating deep in the illegal wildlife trade estimated to be worth €20bn globally a year. The trade runs fourth, only behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking in the list of nefarious activities.
Hain gives the illegal arms trade a pass. Nevertheless the trafficking of animal parts puts it high in the League of Loots representing money, corruption and death. Four legs good, two legs fickle.
Africa’s rhino population is being massacred in slow motion. The animals had been hunted and slaughtered down from 65,000 to 2,400 by the mid-1990s, as poachers and rangers killed each other in an undeclared bush war.
In the Zambezi Valley, 1993 saw the murder of four rangers and the extermination of a thousand rhinos at a cost to the gangs of 170 dead poachers. Yet rangers, rhinos and poachers are all victims, as are the local communities. The poachers are jobless local young men in thrall to the promises money can buy. The only winners are those at the top who keep their hands clean, but whose lives are awash with dirty money.
Set in the fictional Zama Zama wildlife park two hours’ drive north-west from Durban, this story’s hero is local Zulu ranger Isaac Mkhize, all too aware of the brutality of the killings as shot and wounded rhinos have their horns hacked from their heads – all in the dubious name of ‘health and erection’ (Rhino horn seemingly cures fevers, gout and erectile dysfunction).
At €50,000/kg, it does none of these. If it did, buffalo horn, or even chewing your finger nails, would be a cheap substitute as they are produced from the same keratin.
Vietnam’s rich businessmen spend the equivalent of two weeks’ wages for a normal worker as a spectacle of conspicuous consumption and affirmation of status in a parallel with the less damaging but equally absurd Asian practice of adding flakes of gold leaf to ruin good coffee.
The city story re-runs post-Apartheid South African political history with a twist. Politically braver in its wide condemnation, it is the decline and fall of the ANC in reverse – Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma – with the last and least nameless. Here Peter will lose friends who saw rotten apples rather than a rotten barrel. The Party is putrefying from the top down and the inside out. Party capture paved the way for state capture. The details are unsaid, but they taint the air.
The ANC training camps where ‘dissidents’ faced torture, detention and execution. The townships where the ANC’s ‘strategy of tension’ led to kangaroo courts, ‘necklacing’ and lynching. Mandela’s release and authority temporarily held in check the flood, but his charisma paused – slowed rather than stopped – the creep of corruption. At this point Hain’s nameless White ‘Veteran’ enters the fray to expose the leadership.
The Veteran needs a young ‘clean skin’ to be his eyes and ears. Someone neither associated with him or the ANC’s rebels. He finds Thandi Matjeka – or rather, she finds him. She’s the go-between linking the two stories.
Love, sex and politics
On safari to Zama Zama she had given Isaac enough encouragement for Mkhize to use his leave to travel 800 kilometres to Pretoria. There he finds love, sex and politics. The last is disappointment, more bromide than aid to romance. Time, Thandi and more rhino deaths back at the park win him over.
The gangs are relentless as failure only breeds better organised ventures. The cavalry arrive in the form of the ex-US Marines of VETPAW (Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife), but winning individual battles with poachers won’t end the war. That requires the heads to be cut off. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will means the last battle is joined.
There is space for one – or two – Peter Hains in the plot. There is a trusted Labour MP who readily and startlingly easily intervenes in Westminster to expose and pressure South Africa’s amoral leadership during the novel’s periodic excursions to Britain. The forewarning, but not forearming, by Lionel ‘Rusty’ Bernstein under the pseudonym Toussaint in The African Communist in the early 1990s of the corrosive seduction of power that provides an intellectual underpinning also has shades of the author.
But there is no South African exceptionalism. Nepotism, greed and entitlement are viruses common to all successful revolutions. It sets a question no-one has yet answered.
The Rhino Conspiracy is fiction. Its messages are morals that await adoption. White colonialism doesn’t get its due. After all, it was their necrophilia that drove that initial slaughter of trophy hunting that normalised killing animals as diversion, not dinner.
The only difference with the Asian businessmen is the colonists stuck the product on walls rather than down throats. I can see in the near distance paperback, film rights and a sequel. Will Thandi succumb?
Glyn Ford was a UK Labour Party Member of the European Parliament (1984-2009), where he served on the International Trade Committee and worked with ACP, and is the Treasurer of the Anti-Nazi League.
Read more about African literature on our New African Readers’ Club page.