Book review by Bob Newland (Morning Star, 13.4.24).

 The Lion Conspiracy

Peter Hain, Muswell Press, £14.99

IN 2024 we celebrate 30 years of the end of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic, non-racial elections. It is a momentous year when the ANC faces the possibility of losing its majority as a result of years of failure to overcome the legacy of apartheid and the scandals of corruption and state capture.

This is the third in Peter Hain’s “Conspiracy” series of thrillers and doesn’t disappoint. Set in his beloved South Africa, the plot moves back and forth between the apartheid period, the impact of corruption, particularly during the Zuma period and the ongoing battle with the international criminal trade in animal products, gold and diamonds. At the heart of this trade are many disgraced ANC leaders, drug dealers and arms smugglers.

As the drama unfolds, Hain reintroduces some familiar figures. Central is “the Veteran” — a thinly disguised Ronnie Kasrils — former MK intelligence director and subsequent minister in several South African post-apartheid governments.

The Veteran leads a team of activists and specialists combatting the slaughter of endangered species for rich pickings. They are engaged in challenging and exposing those behind these and many linked crimes. Key to the team are “Thandi,” the main activist and investigator, and “the Sniper,” a former apartheid regime assassin, now fighting the poachers on the game reserves which they target.

Another timely inclusion is London Recruits, a documentary film that tells the story of white activists recruited to the ANC cause that recently featured at the Joburg Film Festival, winning the award for best feature film and to be released in Britain in the near future.

Readers may be familiar with these, mainly white, young men and women who were recruited by Kasrils to infiltrate South Africa and carry out illegal propaganda activities for the ANC and Communist Party in the 1960s and ’70s.

The Veteran confronts Thandi’s fear as she contemplates further action against the criminal gangs. He recalls British young communists who, in the words of former president Thabo Mbeki, “came to help us in our darkest hour.” He tells her about Brian Nean (someone I’m rather familiar with) and the Balls brothers, Trent and Ron, (who may also be known to many of you).

In a debriefing with Brian Nean he explains: “Brian told me — rather reluctantly … how frightened he’d felt all the time he was in South Africa. Every time someone stared at him, he became convinced he’d been rumbled.” Helping Thandi address her fears, the Veteran points out that Brian and his many comrades went on to complete many successful operations.

Hain maintains his previous practice of weaving fiction with fact, exploring in great detail the stranglehold by the corrupt political elite on South Africa’s political and economic life. As the plot thickens, we are thrown into the frightening scenario of a possible coup by former leaders around the disgraced president Jacob Zuma. The teams involved in action to prevent this are engaged in an interesting moral debate.

The theme shared throughout the series is the threat to the survival of wildlife throughout Africa. The book dramatically shares statistics showing the virtual destruction of such noble beasts as elephants, tigers, lions and rhinos along with the environmental impact this is causing.

Hain highlights the fragility of South African democracy and the many threats it faces in a global scenario in which former colonial powers and others wishing to gain power and influence compete at the expense of the people of South Africa and those of Africa as a whole.

I would question some of the author’s descriptions of that international struggle and in particular some of the words he places in the mouth of the Veteran about the nature and motivation of Soviet support for the liberation struggle. However, the novel is a very good read and, as with the previous two in the series, I would highly recommend it.

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