“I was with him on the eve of his election,” says Peter Hain, talking about the time he spent with Nelson Mandela on the night of the landslide victory for the African National Congress (ANC) in 1994. “He was very subdued in a way. He said he felt an awful responsibility hanging on his shoulders. He knew the task ahead.”


The historic vote which brought Mandela to the presidency had overturned the white minority government, the first non-racial election a symbolic end to the policy of apartheid (separateness) which had been set in South African law since 1948. Mandela became the first black president of South Africa and the country began a new era, attempting to move forward while making sense of its recent, brutal past.

On the centenary of Mandela’s birth, we spoke to Peter Hain about the South African leader’s remarkable achievements in the face of tremendous adversity

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Peter Hain has recently published a biography, Mandela: His Essential Life, which explores Mandela’s life, as well as sharing his own experiences of the struggle. The son of anti-apartheid activists Walter and Adelaide Hain – who campaigned against the regime in South Africa before they were politically banned by the government, forcing their move to the UK in 1966 – Hain later became a UK member of parliament and a senior minister in Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments. As a young activist, he was instrumental in the ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’ campaigns, which disrupted South African cricket and rugby tours in protest against the policy of apartheid.

British activist and politician Peter Hain leads an anti-apartheid demonstration outside Barclays Bank in Richmond Road, Putney, London, 20th January 1977. He is protesting the funding of the South African armed forces by the South African subsidiary of Barclays. Hain was accused of robbing the same branch of Barclays in 1974, but acquitted. (Photo by Gary Weaser/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Activist and politician Peter Hain leads an anti-apartheid demonstration in 1977. (Photo by Gary Weaser/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Apartheid had been introduced in South Africa by the Afrikaner part of the white population, derived from Dutch and Flemish settlers who came to South Africa from the 17th century. Hain calls apartheid “the worst system of racial tyranny the world has ever seen”, sharing how the regime “regulated every nook and cranny of life, from the bed to the schools to the hospitals”.

“But it’s a mistake to say that apartheid only began under the Afrikaner white minority government,” Hain says, explaining how the roots for the system were sown under British colonial rule.

It speaks to one of Mandela’s many strengths as a leader, says Hain, that while imprisoned, Mandela studied Afrikaner history, wanting to understand the roots of the oppressive system.

During his very tough existence imprisoned on Robben Island – “on the boat to Robben Island, his warders urinated down the only air vent into the room where Mandela and his fellow prisoners were confined” – Mandela began thinking about how he could relate to his warders.

Nelson Mandela revisits the cell at Robben Island prison where he was jailed for 27 years. (Photo by Louise Gubb/Corbis via Getty Images)
Nelson Mandela revisits the cell at Robben Island prison where he was jailed for 27 years. (Photo by Louise Gubb/Corbis via Getty Images)

“He understood that the warders were all poorly educated, they were all Afrikaners and spoke Afrikaans, so he started to learn the language fluently. He never lost this belief that there would, in the end, be negotiations, that his white oppressors would be forced to come to him and his comrades in prison and help negotiate a transition to a non-racial society.”

“He decided he would learn Afrikaner history, which is a very interesting and quite a tragic one. Afrikaners were themselves oppressed by the British: remember that the first ever concentration camps were not in Nazi Germany; they were actually during the Boer Wars, when the British fought the Afrikaner whites for dominance and control of the gold fields and the mines. The traditional colonial objective of plundering the assets of the country resulted in two bloody wars. And in these concentration camps, 25,000 Afrikaans women and children were killed or died in these miserable, horrible, insanitary conditions. That’s very much a part of Afrikaner folklore, the idea that ‘this will never happen to us again.’”

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Mandela understood, Hain says, that “it’s no good just seeing [your enemies] as – in Mandela’s case, anyway – the oppressors, the bad people. He knew he had to understand why are they acting in that way, how can you reach out and understand, while not conceding your ground.”

Mandela walks free after 27 years of imprisonment. He is accompanied by his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. (Photo by Pool BOUVET/DE KEERLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Mandela walks free after 27 years of imprisonment. He is accompanied by his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. (Photo by Pool BOUVET/DE KEERLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

By the time Mandela walked free after 27 years in prison – “a moment which we had all campaigned for, but which we never quite believed would happen” – his warders and oppressors had come to see him “not as a prisoner, as a terrorist ogre, but as a person, a formidable person who could save them from the fate that beckoned to South Africa.”

“I think he can stand as a benchmark for what I call good, principled, decent leadership. But not soft, as it were, vacillating leadership, because there’s nobody stronger that I have ever studied or met. There are far too many strong leaders – strong men, as they like to see themselves – of an authoritarian kind, who really appeal to people’s base instincts. Mandela always appealed to people’s higher instincts, to the better side of all of us.”


Peter Hain was speaking on the History Extra podcast. To listen to the full interview, click here. Mandela: His Essential Life by Peter Hain, is published by Rowman and Littlefield and is out now.


Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast