Ben Turok: A political insider, but not so embedded as to be defensive

Ben Turok during ''The Role of Intellectuals in the State-Society Nexus'' discussion at Liliesleaf in Rivonia in 2015. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press
Ben Turok during ''The Role of Intellectuals in the State-Society Nexus'' discussion at Liliesleaf in Rivonia in 2015. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

Ben Turok is a former anti-apartheid activist and veteran ANC MP.

He played a key role in the writing of the Freedom Charter, in particular its chapter dealing with economic equality. In November

2011, he broke party ranks and did not vote for the controversial Protection of Information Bill, also known as the Secrecy Bill. As co-chairman of Parliament’s ethics committee, he enforced strict compliance among MPs with the asset disclosure policy and presided over two controversial cases – those of former communications minister Dina Pule and ANC MP Yolanda Botha, who faced charges of fraud and corruption.

With My Head above the Parapet is a record of his experience as a participant in the political life of this country since 1994.

With my Head above the Parapet – An insider account of the ANC in power, by Ben Turok.

It is also an insightful account of the ANC’s decline and current malaise, told by an insider intent on holding his party to its historical mission of liberating South Africa from poverty, inequality and discrimination.

This is the book’s introduction, written by Ben Turok, who died on Monday aged 92.

I have been “in the struggle’ for 69 years. Even though I am still embedded in the day-to-day work of the African National Congress in and out of Parliament, it is time for recollection and reflection.

While I cannot, like Wordsworth, do this “in tranquillity”, I feel it imperative to set down my reflections on my experiences.

It has been a turbulent life, rich in a way that only politics can be, but also filled with trauma and suffering.

I have worked with most of the top leaders of the ANC and its Alliance partners and have grown in experience and stature in their company.

But there is no room for sentimentality in politics and I am in no mood to put a rosy gloss on where we are now.

We have been in government for 20 years.

In many ways South Africa is a different country from what it was, yet there are many serious distortions in the system and the way we manage the country.

At times the distortions lead us to forget that we have a political system which is essentially democratic, with a relatively independent judiciary and a state where Africans are in authority in Parliament, the Cabinet, the defence force, the public service and the parastatals.

While there is a great deal of poverty, unemployment and inequality, there has been substantial delivery of public services in the townships and rural areas, and a substantial welfare system is in place.

This book sets out to describe and analyse the years in power, the achievements and the failures.

It is now necessary to be as objective as possible about the present condition of the ANC and its government, admitting the layer of uneasiness which is tangible everywhere, which lies like a haze over the body politic, threatening its future.

There is a pervasive sense of disappointment with the character of the ANC today, its loss of direction and the slippage from its historical mission.

That mission I have always understood to be to liberate the masses from poverty, discrimination and exploitation, and to win for them basic rights, human dignity and a measure of control over their own lives.

The book will record my experience as a participant in the political life of this country since 1994 and search for the sources of the decline in the governing party.

I write as an insider, but one not so deeply embedded as to need to be defensive. This is no lament about what might have been, nor is it written in bitterness.

I do not feel, as some who were participants, that my lifelong commitment has been betrayed. Rather, I want to stand back and try to work out what has gone wrong and why.

For me, involvement in the struggle began a long time ago.

I was born in Latvia in 1927 of parents who were refugees from the Cossack pogroms in Russia. While they were never affiliated to any political organisation, they identified with the Bund, a left-wing Jewish grouping.

Having sought refuge in Latvia, they had to flee once more as that country became Europe’s first fascist state.

Like many other Jews from Eastern Europe, they came to South Africa, where the government wanted to boost its white population.

The family settled in the Gardens, then a largely working-class suburb in Cape Town.

My brothers and I attended a nominally white primary school which had a substantial number of coloured children whose relatively pale complexions enabled them to gain admission.

Being totally strange to this English-speaking environment, our family huddled in a small Jewish community of emigrés, steeped in the values and culture of Eastern European Jewry, which had a substantially progressive political outlook.

This was so much the case that my parents supported the Soviet Union in the Second World War, entertaining Russian seamen who passed through Cape Town, and my father also joined in some anti-fascist demonstrations against the Ossewabrandwag and the like.

They even assisted the Communist Party leader Harry Snitcher when he stood in a local government election.

I was enrolled as a helper at his table outside a polling booth – my first taste of practical politics.

But there was a curious anomaly in my parents’ outlook. Much as they were broadly progressive in political identity, they were stubbornly reactionary when it came to South Africa’s colour bar.

They opposed the universal franchise and behaved like most white South Africans in their daily lives, including the way they treated our domestic worker, Arabia.

My political enlightenment began at the University of Cape Town where I enrolled as an engineering student in 1945.

But I hankered for something more than mathematics, and sneaked into lectures by Professor Andrew Murray and Dr Martin Versfeld in the philosophy department. I was soon a convinced Platonist.

From here it was an easy transition to Marxism. Within a year I became a socialist, at least theoretically, and read Marx’s Capital avidly.

I joined the Students’ Socialist Party and became its chairperson.

Once I qualified as a land surveyor I got a position with a firm in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, where I learned my profession in earnest.

Since most of my work was in the rural areas, where I was put up by white farmers, I came face to face with the most vicious forms of race hatred I had yet experienced.

I have these brutes to thank for my radicalisation and for removing any illusions I might have had about the prospect of changing South Africa’s system piecemeal.

On my return to Cape Town I attempted to join the Communist Party, but it had been banned.

My next step was to travel to London for postgraduate studies at the University of London in town planning.

I was soon contacted by progressive South Africans there and appointed secretary of their committee for the World Youth Festival in Bucharest.

To our delight, the ANC leaders Walter Sisulu, Duma Nokwe and others slipped out of South Africa to attend the festival and I made my acquaintance with these outstanding personalities – my first contact with ANC leaders.

I was inspired and resolved to return to South Africa without completing my studies, partly driven by a sense of guilt that I was so far from the action in the Defiance Campaign then under way in the country.

A number of the South Africans in the UK had been organised into a unit associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Vella Pillay, a distinguished economist working for the UK branch of the Bank of China, was the leader of the group and also responsible for communications with the movement in South Africa.

Back in Cape Town in 1953, I soon got caught up in the Modern Youth Society and the Africa Club, which brought young people of all races together in political and social activities despite the constant attention of the Special Branch.

I renewed my friendship with Mary Butcher, a young UCT graduate of a Christian Science background who had shed many of those beliefs, and we were married, to the consternation of our parents.

We both became totally engrossed in progressive politics and I decided to become a fulltime organiser, first in the trade union movement, and then as an election agent for Len Lee-Warden, a progressive candidate standing as a Native Representative in Parliament.

I also worked closely with Greenwood Ngotyana, a brilliant migrant labourer from the Eastern Cape who became a fulltime ANC official.

With him, I was able to lose the last vestiges of colour prejudice I had absorbed from my upbringing.

The political situation in the country worsened rapidly under National Party rule and many leaders were banned.

I had become a communist by conviction and was astonished to be approached by Athol Thorne to join the reconstituted Communist Party (it had been outlawed in 1950) and was placed in a cell with Reg September and Sonia Bunting.

The cell worked on the basis of complete isolation from any other cell and in complete secrecy.

In 1955 the ANC resolved to host a Congress of the People to adopt a Freedom Charter.

I was appointed a fulltime organiser for the Western Cape and then as a speaker on the economic clause at the Congress.

Fortuitously, all the 10 speakers were called to a meeting on the night before the event, where we were presented with a draft of the Charter.

I had been involved in a great deal of campaigning in the run-up to the Congress and was disappointed to find the economic clause to be bland and non-committal.

I offered to amend the clause. This was agreed to and my draft was put before the meeting, where it was accepted.

On the following day, I addressed the Congress on the new clause and it was passed enthusiastically.

I have not ceased to be amazed that the clause has remained unchanged in the fifty years since then, even through the period of GEAR, when the ANC turned against radical economic policies.

The clause reads:

The people shall share in the country’s wealth. The national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people;

The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;

All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people;

All shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions.

This clause has been the subject of many interpretations over the years. My recollection is that I was motivated by both anti-colonial and socialist sentiment.

Of particular importance was the idea of restoring the national wealth and heritage to the people, not the state. This was directly in line with ANC policy.

The sequel to the Congress of the People was the arrest of 156 leaders for high treason in 1956. We were all herded together in the preparatory examination.

I was among 90 who were then sent for trial proper in the Pretoria Supreme Court.

There were moments when our prospects looked bleak, but the prosecution overreached itself and failed to establish our violent intent and communist ideology. The trial itself collapsed after four years.

During the trial I was appointed national secretary of the Congress of Democrats, a white body affiliated to the ANC through the Congress Alliance, of whose secretariat I was also appointed a member.

I worked closely and daily with people like Walter Sisulu and Duma Nokwe and developed a national profile as a leader of the movement.

I was also a member of the secretariat of the Witwatersrand Communist Party together with Moses Kotane and Rusty Bernstein, among others.

But the political climate deteriorated further as the regime became ever more repressive, and after the shootings at Sharpeville in 1960, the mass arrests of cadres and the banning of the ANC and PAC, I found myself cloistered with Moses Kotane and Michael Harmel as the secretariat of the Communist Party, operating underground in Johannesburg.

It was during this period that the Communist Party circulated a leaflet publicly announcing its existence after some ten years in complete concealment.

At the end of the state of emergency, I returned home. I was soon recruited to head a sabotage unit of Umkhonto we Sizwe, which went into action on 16 December 1961.

Unfortunately I inadvertently left a fingerprint on a bomb and I was arrested and sentenced to three years in Pretoria Central Prison.

On my release, when my wife Mary was warned of a further spell of five years in jail, I fled the country to spend the next 25 years in exile in Kenya, Tanzania, England and Zambia.

A great deal has been written about the ANC in exile, and I include among the publications my own book Strategic Problems of the Liberation Struggle.

This resulted in my being severely hauled over the coals by the leadership, even though some conceded that its analysis was correct.

However, this was only one of the problems I encountered in exile. Another was my expulsion from the Communist Party for refusing to disclose the name of Harold Strachan with whom I had been in prison for three years and to whom I had sent some money for trade union work in Durban without informing the leadership in London.

When President FW de Klerk announced an amnesty for exiles, Mary and I were the first to return home. Fortunately, when the ANC was reconstituted internally after 1990, we were all integrated into branches.

I was soon promoted to the provincial executive committee in what became Gauteng and hence became a member of the provincial cabinet as head of the reconstruction and development programme.

Thus began my life as a politician, a label I dislike intensely as it is usually associated with hypocrisy and opportunism.

So when I am addressed as a “politician”, I often respond by saying, “No, no, I don’t like politicians.

I am an organic intellectual trapped in Parliament.” My intellectual aspirations go back to my fascination with Plato and Aristotle while at UCT and my conversion to Marxism.

In prison I did a degree in the history of philosophy and English literature, topped up by a master’s in political thought while in Tanzania.

In London I registered for a PhD in philosophy but was alienated by the current obsession with linguistics. I became a tutor at the Open University and then a senior counsellor.

After twelve years I took early retirement to start the Institute for African Alternatives, which became a legend across Africa as a forum for radical ideas.

Throughout this period I gave lectures in Europe and in most universities in Africa and presented papers at many international seminars and conferences.

I have never lost the love of teaching and communicating ideas.

Some of my passion for ideas found scope in Parliament in 1995, when I ran seminars in macroeconomic policy for the finance committee.

It also provided me with space to critically engage with the prudent financial policy pursued by the minister of finance and his successors.

Over time I found the protocols of Parliament irritating and much of the work a long slog, redeemed by some interesting work on legislation in the committees.

The most frustrating aspect was that although there was almost total freedom of opinion in committee, where one could really pose tough questions to ministers, when the same issue came before the weekly meeting of ANC members in caucus and in plenary in the National Assembly, acquiescence in the views of the leadership was imposed.

As I chose from the outset to work in the portfolio committees on finance and on trade and industry, I was in the frontline of the struggle on economic policy.

This was where the leadership was most resistant to opposition and where I still believe the ANC has made the most damaging decisions.

This was where I was branded a maverick in the press for speaking my mind in rejecting the kind of structural adjustment programmes promoted by the International Monetary Fund.

I had spent many years in exile opposing the imposition of these programmes on African governments and could not remain silent when my own comrades seemed unwilling to oppose them at home.

If this book can help turn the tide against the current orthodoxy in economic policy, which has stalled our economy for two decades, it will be worth the effort.

Nevertheless, in the main, one had to comply with the dictates of caucus, which was dominated by ministers.

The only occasion when I defied caucus was in walking out of the House when the Protection of State Information Bill was under consideration.

This led to severe disciplinary proceedings against me by the national leadership (they were subsequently called off), which considered my action “counter-revolutionary”.

Yet, subsequently President Zuma referred the bill back to Parliament, providing another opportunity for debate about whether it passes constitutional muster. I still believe that the bill is both undesirable and unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, despite the tedium, I have to concede that Parliament remains the arena of national political contestation. Every major political development passes through this institution, whether it be in the confines of caucus or in the House itself.

My most rewarding recollection of Parliament was the time when I persuaded Mandela’s lawyers to include the socioeconomic clauses in the Constitution, even if they found it necessary to insert a limitation clause.

The Bill of Rights includes “second generation rights”, or socioeconomic rights, such as housing, health care, education, water and social security.

Under the heading “Limitation of Rights”, the Constitution states: “The rights in the Bill of Rights may be limited only in terms of law of general application to the extent that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom, taking into account all relevant factors.”

A key sentence reads: “The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.”

And so, if my obituary records my contributions to the Freedom Charter and to the Constitution, I shall sleep content.

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