From loyal cadre to crusty old critic
After years of keeping his misgivings to himself, Ben Turok has had enough, writes Chris Barron
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.
ADMIRING MAO: ANC stalwart Ben Turok at his home in Noordhoek near Cape Town this week
YOUNG IDEALIST: Ben Turok in 1961