In a time of post-apartheid dichotomies, the legacy of the late Ben Turok compels each of us to do our bit to accelerate inclusion and justice
Ours is a country of paradoxes.
Consider the beauty of our mountains, valleys and beaches, our multitextured human diversity and biodiversity juxtaposed with the ugliness of unequal lives, violence and related intolerances.
There is love and solidarity across colour, nationality and gender, among other things, juxtaposed with fear and resentment, primarily fuelled by the real and perceived unequal allocation of power, national resources and life opportunities.
Some of these paradoxes played out during the memorial service of iconic struggle stalwart Ben Turok on Saturday, January 18.
The stark paradox was the grand finale, a song sung by a black-and-white duo from the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra:
“Mabayek’ umhlaba wethu,
“Mabayek’ umhlaba wethu,
“Thina sizwe esinsundu,
“Sikhalela izwe lethu,
It’s important to note that the song was enthusiastically introduced to us by Turok’s son, Neil, who directed the programme.
This part of the song translates to:
“They must leave our land alone,
“We, the black nation mourn our land,
“Which was taken by white people...”
Needless to say that Turok, the hero being buried, was a white intellectual who shunned the path of capital accumulation that was open to him as an intelligent, educated, hardworking and disciplined white man.
Instead he followed Scott Peck’s road less travelled.
He opted for the difficult path, using his knowledge, skills, values and industry to advance the struggle against race and class-based injustice and related exploitation primarily of black people for the benefit of white people.
The son of Jewish immigrants escaping oppression in Latvia, Turok, who had arrived in South Africa as a little boy, threw himself into the struggle for justice for all at the tender age of 16.
He never looked back until his deathbed on December 9 2019.
The diversity of mourners was testament to his life of dedication to the pursuit of nonracial justice, particularly economic and related social justice for all.
A handful of the mourners were a few of Turok’s comrades from the SA Congress of Democrats, including Ronnie Kasrils and Nick Wolpe, who made it clear that they were much younger.
I also spotted cartoonist Zapiro, who was probably not there as a comrade.
There weren’t many of Turok’s contemporaries.
At 92 and still addressing public gatherings such as the Social Justice Summit and International Conference barely two months before his death, Turok far exceeded South Africa’s life expectancy.
According to Stats SA, South Africa’s life expectancy for men last year was 61.5.
There was a noticeable representation of young people, a group Turok saw as the bridge to the future.
He used the modest Salt River community centre in Cape Town to hold space for young people to dialogue about democracy, inclusion, ethical leadership and public accountability.
That is not surprising. As I said in my eulogy, one of Turok’s hallmarks was adaptability.
Regarding young people, Turok would have known, as a revolutionary, that virtually all of history’s game-changing moments were made possible by young people.
The magic came from a combination of unparalleled visionary leadership and the stubborn faith of young people in a future they believed in.
Karl Marx, who was one of his heroes, wrote the Communist Manifesto before turning 30.
Indeed, my son Mbusowabantu took to a simplified Marxism at a tender age, like a fish to water.
Here we were, about to bury a white hero while singing about white people who took our land.
Not only was he a white man who opposed land dispossession and other forms of white privilege and black disadvantage, many of those singing were also white.
For a moment I wondered if they understood the song.
I looked across and spotted Turok’s widow, Mary, singing.
Neil, who like his brothers, Fred and Ivan, grew up between ANC struggle camps on the African continent and the UK, has dedicated his life to finding and unleashing the potential of Africa’s brightest minds.
Through the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (Aims), he hopes that the next Albert Einstein equivalent will come from Africa.
I must say I am proud to be a member of Aims’ international board of directors.
The song Mabayek’ umhlaba wethu is part of South Africa’s post-apartheid contradictions and continuities, 24 years into implementing a Constitution that entrenched social justice and 25 years into democracy.
We found ourselves simultaneously mourning whites taking away land while gratefully celebrating the life of a white hero of the struggle to liberate black people.
That is South Africa, a country with a complex history and complex current realities.
Turok’s second son, who is an economics professor, reminded us that during apartheid the privilege extended to you on the basis of your colour and hard work guaranteed you success.
As he presented his father’s illustrious obituary, peppered with historical moments, Ivan noted that his father shunned capital accumulation in favour of the struggle.
That struggle was a struggle for justice for all and not justice as “just us”.
It was a struggle that sought to eradicate extractive relationships based on race, gender, nationality and other human attributes.
It was a struggle to give birth to a society of equals, to a South Africa that belongs to all as envisaged in the Freedom Charter that Turok helped draft.
There we were, more than 50 years since Turok joined the struggle primarily against racial dispossession as a little boy, still faced with the legacy of land dispossession, job reservation and other manifestations of what the professor referred to as continuities.
All speakers, among them former president Kgalema Motlanthe and quintessential struggle intellectual Pallo Jordan, lauded Turok for his selfless contribution to the struggle.
They noted sadly that the shadow of the past remains with us, evident in land distribution that remains skewed in favour of white people; they noted an economy that continues along the contours of black exclusion from ownership of the means of production and skilled jobs; and they noted infrastructure disparities in terms of roads, schools, hospitals and access to the digital economy.
Motlanthe and Jordan also lamented the excesses of the emerging black elite, which they said tended to leverage political power for its own selfish economic advancement, thus merely joining the white elite instead of transforming extractive socioeconomic relations left behind by colonialism and apartheid.
Jordan called the selfish black elite a “rapacious black bourgeoisie”.
Mary Turok, who was also in the struggle and, like her husband, was imprisoned at some stage, reminded us that she did not have many more days.
With timeless defiance in her eyes she undertook to use the remainder of her days fighting for a people-centred democracy that is anchored in social justice and ethics, which inspired her and her late husband’s joining the struggle as children and holding on until now.
She urged all of us to do our bit to push forward to get South Africa back on track to accelerate socioeconomic inclusion and ethical governance.
Count me in.
- Madonsela is law trust chair in social justice at Stellenbosch University, Thuma Foundation founder and social justice M-Plan convener
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