Peter Hain – The Rhino Conspiracy
Published by Muswell Press, hardback £14.99. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher as I chaired a panel including the author at Aye Write! 2021, Glasgow’s book festival. Thanks to Bob McDevitt and the Aye Write! team for inviting me, and thanks to Fiona Brownlee at Brownlee Donald for sending the book to me.
First, the official blurb: Forced to break his lifetime loyalty to the ruling ANC, The Veteran and his close band of comrades are hell bent on catching the corrupt poaching chiefs and exposing their trade, but first they must establish the truth. The stakes are high. Has Mandela’s ‘rainbow nation’ been irretrievably betrayed by political corruption and cronyism? Can the country’s ancient rhino herd be saved from extinction from state-sponsored poaching?
Peter Hain is far from the first former MP to have strayed into the field of fiction writing, nor the first to use politics as a backdrop. He is, however, surely the first UK politician to employ South Africa politics and big game poaching in a crime thriller – though it shouldn’t come as a surprise, as he was born in South Africa and active in the anti-apartheid movement from his teenage years on. Not many crime thrillers come with a bibliography, either, which adds weight to the feeling that much of what we are reading here is based on real events, situations and statistics.
The prologue ranges from present-day South Africa to the same character years previously, to a UK MP racing through the Palace of Westminster to a vote. Next we travel to the flourishing Zama Zama wildlife reserve, where rangers Isaac Mkhize and Steve Brown are finding it particularly popular with one guest, white business consultant Piet van der Merwe, who asks many questions about the camp, not just the wildlife, and is desperate to see the park’s rhinos. Isaac talks in passionate terms to the guests about the importance of protecting the park’s wildlife from poachers, and about how poachers are supported by shady resources. There is another passionate voice on the game drive, that of young woman Thandi Matjeke. She is appalled at the stories of poaching: “This is our heritage! Rhinos have been around for 50 million years… To kill them is not just criminal, it’s Armageddon!” Reading her words, I could not disagree.
After the intrigue of the prologue and the beauty of the reserve, the first section introducing us to the cast of characters and main themes is punctuated with chunks of South African history and politics, which slows the narrative rather frustratingly, interesting though it all is. But as we meet other main players, this history puts them in a broader context.
Not all the characters have names, some are only known by an identifying moniker – The Sniper, The Owner of Zama Zama , The Veteran – which is an interesting move. This latter figure was once an activist in the ANC’s underground wing, then a politician when the party came to govern the country. He’s an old man now, but still taking on new challenges, for which he needs a protégé, someone like he was in his youth, with fire and steel. He also needs a partner outside South Africa to take his message to the world, which is where the sympathetic UK MP, Bob Richards comes in.
There is also Moses Khoza, underground ANC leader, Robben Island inmate and now The President’s head of security; he has a large extended family all wanting money and lucrative jobs – and, ominously, he is a friend of Piet van der Mawe. Meanwhile, Thandi and Isaac are brought together, and they meet The Veteran, who thinks they could be the perfect fit for his plans. He is convinced that government corruption and illegal poaching are linked, and is determined to expose those involved.
We then move between the reserve and the city, as, while The Owner and the rangers of Zama Zama come up with a plan to deal with poachers on the reserve’s land, The Veteran investigates a money-laundering link, again using Richards to get the information out, and Isaac is entrusted with a special mission to provide evidence connecting the poachers to the middlemen to the buyers of rhino horn.
There are some pacy sequences and moments of real tension as the poachers are tackled and their masters traced, and we eventually come back to revisit the events of the prologue, which is a nice touch. And then, a chink of hope that change will come, to make for an uplifting ending.
The most impassioned speeches about the wildlife do tend to have a chunk of research in them, but who can blame Hain for doing this – and, I suspect, letting his own feelings come through his characters – when it is such an emotive subject? I feel his presence too in passages discussing the ANC’s lack of progress in eradicating corruption in government while leaving so many communities with little or nothing, though again it’s understandable he’d want to pour his feelings into this novel as well as his knowledge. And while the early episodes going back into the ANC’s history do slow the narrative, I found that I learned a lot.
If you want an all-action, all-excitement, breathlessly-paced thriller then this isn’t the book for you. But if you want to learn while you enjoy the unfolding of the deft plot, and be immersed in the beauty of the Zama Zama reserve, which is described fabulously, then settle down and start turning the pages.
As a teenager, newly moved to the UK from South Africa, Peter Hain was a leading activist in the anti-apartheid movement. He then went into politics, being the Labour MP for Neath, south Wales, between 1991 and 2015, including 12 years as a senior minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Since standing down as an MP, he has sat in the House of Lords. He has written numerous non-fiction works but The Rhino Conspiracy is his first thriller.