From loyal cadre to crusty old critic

Af­ter years of keep­ing his mis­giv­ings to him­self, Ben Turok has had enough, writes Chris Bar­ron

Sunday Times - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

WE were told that the grand old man of South African pol­i­tics, ANC MP Ben Turok, had de­cided to re­tire be­cause of ill health.

But one look at his cheer­ful face, smil­ing down from the deck of his home on the side of the moun­tain above No­ord­hoek beach in Cape Town, sug­gests other­wise. He is the health­i­est, fittest-look­ing 86-year-old you are likely to see. He would have to be to climb the steps from his garage ev­ery day.

His heart was an is­sue, but he has had a stent put in and it is as good as new. The doc­tor told him to avoid stress — but the way he puts it, he is more likely to die of bore­dom from sit­ting through an­other deadly “de­bate” in par­lia­ment.

Speech fa­tigue, Nkandla and racism are the real rea­sons he is get­ting out.

He will not put it so bluntly, of course. Luthuli House has of­fered him “the hon­our” of be­ing made “a stal­wart”. His re­la­tion­ship with the ANC has not al­ways been an easy one, and this has been a long time com­ing. He clearly does not want to blow it.

“Don’t put words in my mouth, mate,” he growls an­grily. Not ex­actly with men­ace, but those eyes stop smil­ing very quickly and one is re­minded that this old com­mu­nist once ad­mired Mao and Stalin and even now trips lightly over the mil­lions of dead they left in their wake. “Lives were not the is­sue,” he says.

As chair­man of par­lia­ment’s ethics com­mit­tee, how does he feel about the R215-mil­lion up­grade at Nkandla?

“I am not go­ing to get into a po­si­tion of at­tack­ing [Pres­i­dent Ja­cob] Zuma even if that’s what you want me to do,” he says. “I am cer­tainly con­cerned.” Why has he not spo­ken out? “So much has been said about Nkandla. What more can I say?” That it is ob­scene? “I don’t want to use your words. I would say it’s a scan­dal. I don’t need to say more than that.” Is this why he is leav­ing? Long pause. “I don’t want to deny that there is a de­gree of dis­may about cer­tain de­velop-

He hasn’t moved from rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ist rhetoric to fac­ing the real world

ments, not just Nkandla.”

Has cor­rup­tion made his po­si­tion in par­lia­ment un­ten­able?

“I am not go­ing to say that.” Pause. “It fills me with dis­may.”

He also did not like the way the ANC’s na­tional con­fer­ence in Man­gaung was han­dled, he says, or the way Deputy Pres­i­dent Kgalema Mot­lanthe, who chal­lenged Zuma for the party lead­er­ship, was treated.

He left the con­fer­ence early “be­cause I thought the way the elec­tions were run was not demo­cratic”.

Then the racism. “The first sen­tence of the Free­dom Char­ter — ‘South Africa be­longs to all who live in it, black and white’ — the ANC Youth League does not agree with that and var­i­ous groups in the ANC do not agree with that.”

They do not think that the coun­try is for whites, he says.

“There are people in the ANC who in their day-to-day work do give pref­er­ence to Africans. This is ev­i­dent in pro­mo­tions, giv­ing jobs and so on.” Has the ANC be­come racist? “It’s not racism, it’s im­ple­ment­ing af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion in a heavy-handed man­ner.”

An ex­am­ple is for­mer cab­i­net spokesman Jimmy Manyi, who said there were too many coloured people in the Western Cape. Is he con­cerned that no black Africans in the ANC slapped him down?

“You’re nail­ing me down to specifics. I think that af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion for Africans is done some­times in a heavy-handed man­ner. I won’t go fur­ther than that.”

Turok has been de­scribed as a “mav­er­ick”, but says he does not like the la­bel at all. He has looked it up in eight dic­tio­nar­ies, he says, and it means an un­ortho­dox and in­de­pen­dent­minded per­son.

“But you guys in the press, when I say some­thing you don’t like or some­thing that is hos­tile to busi­ness, that’s when you say Turok’s a mav­er­ick.”

In fact, it is his own com­rades who called him a mav­er­ick. Forty years ago, when he was in the South African Com­mu­nist Party, they grum­bled that he could af­ford to be a mav­er­ick be­cause he had mar­ried into an ex­tremely wealthy fam­ily and did not have the money is­sues they did.

His ANC col­leagues in par­lia­ment called him a mav­er­ick be­cause of eco­nomic views that were de­cid­edly ec­cen­tric.

He says the govern­ment that came to power in 1994 kow­towed to the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund and the World Bank. The ar­gu­ment that South Africa was fac­ing the big­gest debt cri­sis in its his­tory and had no choice is rubbish.

“They were led to be­lieve that the econ­omy was on the rocks. It is not clear that it was. We were pan­icked into tak­ing very dras­tic fis­cal and mon­e­tary pol­icy de­ci­sions.”

He talks about the adop­tion of Gear — the growth, em­ploy­ment and re­dis­tri­bu­tion pol­icy — as if it were al­most an act of trea­son.

“It led to mas­sive un­em­ploy­ment and dein­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion and did not strengthen the real econ­omy.”

ANC col­leagues who were on the par­lia­men­tary fi­nan­cial com­mit­tee with him say his un­der­stand­ing of the real econ­omy has al­ways been ten­u­ous, to say the least.

“He hasn’t moved from rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ist rhetoric of the 1950s and 1960s to fac­ing the real world,” says one of them. “His eco­nomic views are delu­sional rubbish.”

A re­cent on­line ar­ti­cle praised Turok for be­ing pre­pared to “stick his head above the para­pet”. This clearly ap­peals to what col­leagues say is a not in­con­sid­er­able ego. He has printed it out and left it on his desk for all to see.

More of­ten than not, though, he has kept his head well down. He did not breathe a word against the arms deal.

“I wasn’t happy about it,” he says now. “I couldn’t un­der­stand why we needed these things.”

So that ANC mem­bers could get fat on bribes? “Prob­a­bly. Is it all true?” He makes the as­ton­ish­ing con­fes­sion that he has not done much read­ing on the sub­ject. “There is so much to read. Ev­ery MP has to choose his ter­rain. My ter­rain is eco­nom­ics.”

Was the arms deal not about eco­nom­ics — all those promised in­dus­trial off­sets?

For­mer min­is­ter of trade and in­dus­try Alec Er­win lied about those, he says.

“He told us again and again and again . . . he told us the off­sets are fan­tas­tic. It wasn’t true. He told us in com­mit­tee. We asked him ques­tions in the ANC, in the study group, in the house. We asked him again and again: ‘What is this all about?’ And he said it’s in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, it’s off­sets. It wasn’t true. Maybe we were gullible.”

Turok also said noth­ing about Thabo Mbeki’s dis­as­trous Aids pol­icy.

“There are oc­ca­sions when you feel the party is mak­ing a mis­take, and I have felt this quite a few times. You ask yourself, is this an is­sue on which you want to re­sign? My com­mit­ment to the ANC and its vi­sion has been big­ger than these in­di­vid­ual dis­agree­ments.”

He did, of course, dis­ci­pline dis­graced com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter Dina Pule and was sav­aged for it by his ANC col­leagues so vi­ciously that he felt the need for body­guards. What has hap­pened to his party? The cab­i­net fired her, he says. Would it have hap­pened with­out the Sun­day Times?

“I think the press is play­ing a very im­por­tant part in ex­pos­ing wrong­do­ings.”

Why did he not vote against the se­crecy bill? He made his ex­cuses and left the Na­tional As­sem­bly just as the vote was about to be taken. Would it not have made more of a state­ment if he had voted against it?

“I am a loyal mem­ber of the ANC cau­cus, bound by the dis­ci­pline of the cau­cus.”

The ANC dis­ci­plined him any­way. He thought the pro­ce­dures against him were “vin­dic­tive and un­fair”.

“The terms of the charge sheet were ag­gres­sive.”

But, as he says, he has been through worse.

In the early 1960s, he was jailed for three years for “plant­ing bombs” in Jo­han­nes­burg, his con­tri­bu­tion to the armed strug­gle.

In­no­cent people might have been killed, but “when you do sab­o­tage you know some­one might be hurt”. Lose an arm, a leg, eyes? “Well, I was about to lose my life, mate. I put my life on the line.”

He has writ­ten about his “bru­tal” and “in­hu­mane” treat­ment by the po­lice, but he agrees, tetchily, that in the Soviet Union — which he idolised at the time — he would have been sent to Siberia or got a bul­let in the head.

“I will write to Dr Ver­wo­erd and thank him for not putting a bul­let in my head,” he says sar­cas­ti­cally.

He re­jects the no­tion that a “clique” of white com­mu­nists foisted the armed strug­gle on a re­luc­tant ANC, even if he did once boast about “how easy it was for a small group like ours” to “in­flu­ence [the ANC] on such a scale”.

There was broad pop­u­lar sup­port, he says.

“When we or­gan­ised protests in Soweto, the mes­sage came again and again: ‘Don’t give us leaflets, give us guns.’ ”

In 1966 he went into ex­ile, walk­ing 30km through the Botswana bush alone at night with a torch and a map. His wife, Mary, who had just been re­leased af­ter six months in jail, and their three chil­dren went separately.

One of Turok’s great­est in­flu­ences was Mao Ze­dong, whom he thought “a won­der­ful man”. He con­cedes that “he made se­ri­ous blun­ders later on”.

Sixty mil­lion died be­cause of Mao and he calls that “a se­ri­ous blun­der”?

“I don’t know that he killed any­one. One is al­ways a bit scep­ti­cal. I sup­pose there must have been re­pres­sion and prob­a­bly there were bad poli­cies.”

He ad­mits he has not done much to ed­u­cate him­self on the mat­ter.

He de­nies that he was un­moved by the tyranny of the Soviet Union Com­mu­nist Party. He says he de­cided to leave its South African coun­ter­part af­ter vis­it­ing the Soviet Union in 1974 and be­ing “ap­palled” by what he saw.

In fact, ac­cord­ing to his 2003 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Noth­ing But the

Af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion for Africans is done some­times in a heavy-handed man­ner

Truth, he was ex­pelled from the party in 1976 for in­dis­ci­pline.

“I’ve never di­vulged the real rea­son why I left,” he says.

Turok, who stud­ied land sur­vey­ing at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, claims to have writ­ten the eco­nomic clauses of the Free­dom Char­ter, which the ANC Youth League has taken as a li­cence to plunge South Africa into a per­pet­ual and hugely dam­ag­ing de­bate about na­tion­al­i­sa­tion. Don’t blame me, he says. “I never used the word ‘na­tion­al­i­sa­tion’. I used the phrase ‘pub­lic own­er­ship’.”

Only he seems to know the dif­fer­ence.

Pic­ture: HALDEN KROG

AD­MIR­ING MAO: ANC stal­wart Ben Turok at his home in No­ord­hoek near Cape Town this week

YOUNG IDE­AL­IST: Ben Turok in 1961

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