Guest Column

OPINION: Ben Turok, rare breed of MP dedicated to bridging the gap between rich and poor

2019-12-10 17:00
Professor Ben Turok.

Professor Ben Turok. (Gallo Images)

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There can be little doubt that post-1994 Ben was a rarity - a truly dedicated constituency MP, who worked hard for his local community, worked hard to bridge the gap between rich and poor, worked hard to bring about a better life for those living in squalor, writes Roger Southall

It is with enormous sadness that I heard of the death of Ben Turok, one of the last Treason Trialists to stay with us until just now, and someone who - while so many have strayed into the paths of Mammon - always remained true and loyal to the party's principles. 

There will be many who can write more intimately than I can about his years in exile and in the party. But let me just reminisce about Ben Turok the sanctions buster.

When I was teaching at the university in Lesotho in 1976, I invited Ben down from Zambia to teach my students for a few days. I had Ben impressed by his writings, although I had never yet met him. 

Ben arrived and embarked on the teaching with enthusiasm, outlining the development of the ANC and the course of the liberation struggle.

It was a huge thrill to the students, who loved to have a real live member of the ANC-in-exile talking to them - and being white, something of a curiosity and inspiration into the bargain. 

But Ben had come with an ulterior motive.

His car in Zambia had broken down, I vaguely remember it was a VW, and I was despatched to drive across the border to Bloemfontein to order a part (or it might even have been a whole reconditioned engine, I can’t remember), and to get it sent to him in Lusaka, in defiance of UN sanctions.

The job was duly done, although I guarantee it was not addressed to "ANC Lusaka".

Who the prescribed recipient was I cannot tell, but I do know that Ben was soon happily driving around again.

There can be little doubt that post-1994 Ben was a rarity - a truly dedicated constituency MP, who worked hard for his local community, worked hard to bridge the gap between rich and poor, worked hard to bring about a better life for those living in squalor.

He combined this with being one of the most zealous of back bench MPs for the ANC, performing excellent service on a multitude of parliamentary committees.

Alongside that, once back in South Africa, he revived his Institute for African Alternatives, whose work was always to be distinguished by a commitment to pan-Africanism and continental development.

Ben never forgot that South Africa was part of Africa, and that the struggle for liberation owed so much to the peoples of the continent.

We have to hope that his valuable New Agenda magazine, which Ben continued to edit, will continue after his departure, so that it will continue to provide a venue for informed reflection, critical ideas and innovatory suggestions.

Ben will be much missed, but it was a life well, truly and bravely lived.

- Roger Southall, Sociology, Wits University

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