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Friday, 21 April, 2000, 08:40 GMT 09:40 UK
Peter Hain: 'Son of Africa'
By Bob Chaundy of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

When Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe rounded on Peter Hain recently, branding him a racist, the Foreign Office minister's anger would have been mixed with a certain irony.

Some 30 years ago, when Mugabe was leading a guerrilla war against the government forces of white-ruled Rhodesia, Peter Hain, as a radical Young Liberal in London, was leading a campaign against racism in southern Africa.

He was known as Hain the Pain, in particular for his efforts to disrupt the Springboks' 1970 rugby tour by staging pitch invasions and even gluing the locks on the players' hotel rooms.

Peter Hain demonstrating against Apartheid
The radical: Campaigning against apartheid
He was a scourge not only of the South Africans, but also of middle England which believed that sport and politics should not be mixed.

His stance was a brave one, especially as Hain had already gained first-hand experience of the kind of measures Pretoria would adopt to try to silence its opponents.

He had been brought up in South Africa where he was embroiled in political activism.

His parents became the first married couple to become banned persons under the oppressive apartheid regime. They had to seek a special dispensation even to talk to each other. They were forced into exile in Britain when Hain was 16.

As South Africa's public enemy number one, Hain was sent a letter bomb in 1972 that failed to explode only because of faulty wiring.

Peter Hain's Career
1950 Born in Nairobi
1970 Chair of Stop the 70 Tour
1977 Leaves Liberals for Labour
1991 Wins by-election at Neath
1997 Becomes government minister
Three years later, he was accused of robbing a bank but acquitted after a 10-day trial. He is certain it was an attempt by Pretoria to frame him.

Hain felt his ambition constrained in the Liberals, so he defected to Labour in 1977 and worked as a trade union researcher.

In the 1980s, as a member of the so-called "soft left", he worked closely with Neil Kinnock, urging the modernisation of the party.

He became MP for the Welsh seat of Neath in 1991 and, soon after, became secretary of the left-leaning Tribune group.

In 1997 he was offered a job, first in the Whip's office in opposition, then as under-secretary for Wales after the election.

His modernising tendencies appealed to Tony Blair, who was further impressed by his energetic work during the referendum campaigns in Scotland and Wales.

Now, Hain is the high-profile minister of state with special responsibility for Africa and the Middle East, making the former firebrand part of the establishment.

Peter Hain campaigning for Labour at the 1991 Neath by-election
The victor: Winning Neath for Labour in 1991
But there is still a rebellious side to him. Last year, in The New Statesman, he launched a scathing attack on his own government by accusing it of ignoring the party's traditional supporters.

Nevertheless, some of his former fellow travellers see him as a traitor.

John Pilger, angry at the government's sanctions policy towards Iraq, said Hain had "metamorphosed from a principled political activist to yet another Foreign Office mouthpiece".

Some less severe commentators have accused him of adapting his positions on several fronts to the prevailing winds.

Hain defends himself vigorously: "If you don't try to influence events, you become marginalised." He maintains that while his government responsibilities have necessitated some rethinking, he still describes himself as a "libertarian socialist".

He believes Saddam Hussein to be "evil" and asks why the Pilgers of this world ignore the threat he poses to world peace.

The former Labour MP and anti-apartheid activist, Bob Hughes, now Lord Hughes of Woodside, believes Peter Hain has remained true to his principles.

Peter Hain with his ministerial Red Box
The minister: Outspoken critic of Mugabe
"Peter's work, especially on Angola, and his vigorous attacks on the UN sanction breakers, is beginning to bear fruit and is an example of how he is standing up for principles he believes in".

When Peter Hain took his current job, he hoped his credentials as a "son of Africa" would give him more credibility when trying to persuade certain African countries to end their corruption and dictatorships.

Unfortunately, it does not appear to have worked with Robert Mugabe.

See also:

01 Apr 00 | UK Politics
UK anger over Zimbabwe violence
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