Interview: Peter Hain talks about the Rhino Conspiracy

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Peter Hain Rhino Conspiracy

Born in Kenya and raised in South Africa, Peter Hain moved to the UK in the 1970s and became a leading anti-apartheid activist. In the 1990s, he was elected MP for Neath in South Wales and later rose through the ranks in Tony Blair’s government to serve in a number of cabinet roles. Today, he’s a member of the House of Lords, but has never lost his connection with Southern Africa, nor the difficult issues the region faces.

Now, he’s written his first thriller novel and it came out last month. The Rhino Conspiracy is about illegal wildlife poaching as well as the below-the-radar political apparatus in South Africa that has helped perpetuate it. We asked Lord Hain to answer a few questions about this interesting new novel, and he obliged…

First of all, what are crime fiction lovers going to love about The Rhino Conspiracy?
I hope a gripping and easy read, with plenty of drama and pace, giving insight into both the reality of poaching that threatens vital species like rhinos and elephants, as well the anti-apartheid freedom struggle and its contemporary betrayal by corrupt politicians.

This is your debut crime novel. What made you decide to write a thriller?
Having written over 20 non-fiction books but being an avid thriller reader myself, I wanted to try it out. And to reach a different audience. Visiting a safari park in 2015, seeing rhinos peacefully chomping away with 24/7 armed guards and discovering poaching provoked wildlife ‘war zones’, then learning more about the international crime syndicates and corrupt politicians fuelling it, sparked the idea. Coupled with anger at the appalling ‘state capture’ by corruption and cronyism in South Africa, betraying Nelson Mandela’s legacy

Tell us more about Thandi, your young activist character, and how you conceived her?
I’ve met young black South African women (and men) who are really inspiring: bright, with great energy and values – the sort of people who could recover the Mandela vision for this wonderful country so disfigured by apartheid, compounded by corruption especially under the previous President Jacob Zuma. I portray her as the granddaughter of a black woman our family knew well when I was a boy growing up in Pretoria in the 1960s.

You’ve also got The Veteran, The Owner and The Sniper. What are they up to and why have you chosen not to name them?
All three are fictional, but based upon real people, two of whom I have met, and I have chosen not to give them names to keep a sense of mystery. The Veteran a friend and former freedom fighter; the Sniper a former soldier under the apartheid state; the Owner a safari park founder. They comprise an unlikely trio who stumble into an alliance to fight poaching and its sponsor: state corruption. 

What are Thandi and The Veteran up against?
A formidable security service and the criminal politicians and officials who will stop at nothing to protect their looting, as the violence and killing in the book demonstrates.

Politics seems to be much more turbulent at the moment. What made you want to write a book about rhino poaching, as opposed to other issues?
Politics certainly is turbulent!

The Rhino Conspiracy by Peter Hain front cover

Hopefully the Rhino Conspiracy reveals interesting insights for two quite different audiences: first wildlife enthusiasts for a fast-paced drama; second well-informed readers of current affairs unfamiliar with the wildlife world.  They might together be captivated by an insider-account of the political world – the idealists as well as self-interested cynics who both inhabit it – and the burning battles between poachers and game rangers. 

How much does your experience as a young activist in the 1970s inform this novel? And how about your experience as an MP and minister in the 1990s and 00s?
Each of my experiences – militant young anti-apartheid activist, radical MP and change-driving government minister – are strongly reflected, to give an insider perspective.

If you were young again, would you become an activist, what cause would you support, and why? Would it be rhino poaching?
Certainly I would! Climate change would be top of my list as an Extinction Rebellion activist along with combatting racism through #BlackLivesMatter.  I would also be campaigning for Save The Rhino who generously backed this book with a launch event.

You campaigned hard against apartheid. Overall are you satisfied or disappointed with what South Africa has become today? Many things are better and more equal, but it seems to be a very corrupt and violent country. And how have you reflected your thoughts in the book?
My thoughts on what has happened to South Africa come through strongly in my characters particularly Thandi Matjeke, The Veteran and the backbench British MP who they ask to help them.

What other crime or thriller authors do you read? Who would you say your influences are, in the genre?
Gerald Seymour whom I first met over 50 years ago when he was an ITN reporter covering the campaign I led to disrupt and stop all-white South African sports tours to oppose apartheid; Sam Bourne; James Patterson, Craig Thomas and David Baldacci. They are all great thriller writers and I have learnt especially from Gerald Seymour’s earlier books – his later ones have much longer sentences in them! They each have pace, well-crafted characters and gripping plots with sometimes tantalisingly unforeseen consequences to readers. Hopefully The Rhino Conspiracy reflects some of these attributes, especially as a page-turner.

What’s next for Peter Hain in the world of crime fiction?
I have a completed the manuscript for a thriller set in southern Africa – South Africa and Zimbabwe – with a link to China, provisionally entitled The Lowveld Conundrum. Some kind readers of The Rhino Conspiracy have generously said they are keen on a sequel because they are intrigued to see what the characters in it might next do! We shall see because I would still have to conceive of a new plot and then to write it, though I’ve been thinking already…

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