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Ben Turok – a lifetime of putting his head above the parapet


Dr Onkgopotse JJ Tabane is the Editor of Leadership Magazine and Anchor of Power to Truth on ENCA. He holds a PhD in media studies from Wits University. He is CEO of a communications company Sgwili Media Group and is Author of Lets Talk Frankly. He is also a trustee of the Love Life Trust, The UWC Foundation as well as Chair of the UWC Media Society.

He’s 85, he’s facing a disciplinary for refusing to vote for the so-called Secrecy Bill, and he’s one of the few people who can still tell us exactly what the Freedom Charter actually means. Professor Ben Turok is a Struggle stalwart, and decades later, still opens his mouth when there’s something to say. Let's take a moment to jot down some of his more quotable quotes. 

Meet the independent mind of Professor Ben Turok. Forget the fact that he rattled the cage by refusing to vote for the Secrecy Bill in Parliament (a rare move in that discipline-obsessed movement). He’s far from backing down yet – in fact, this week, as the ANC gathered for its national policy conference, the Prof was on form once again.

At an event to mark the 57th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, proceedings got off to an excellent start for him when the chairperson of the ANC acknowledged his 85th birthday milestone, and the whole hall chimed in to congratulate him. His mood seemed chipper – when asked about his disciplinary case, he gleefully said the case had “since died down” and, with an added dose of  irreverence, quipped: “Do you think they will still charge me?”

In all seriousness, it’s a fair question, and one that was particularly apt at this celebration. Turok represents the last of those who don’t second-guess the meaning of the Freedom Charter. He was there with those who wrote the document, and can explain the exact meaning of each phrase, as well as the intention of the movement.  

Asked whether the Freedom Charter was sacrosanct and what forum would be relevant to change it, his opinion was clear: just implement the damn thing. Because we’re so much better at revising policies than actually doing anything with them.

“Today, we are too cautious,” he said, differing somewhat from the reasoning of president Jacob Zuma earlier in the day, who had emphasised the need to be circumspect in implementing certain things after 1994. Turok was clear that the second transition was very relevant, and pointed out the need to distinguish between primary and secondary contradictions – but added that analysis should focus on emphasis and priority. And then, that action should be taken. 

But, because nobody can put things quite like the Prof himself, it’s perhaps better to let him have the floor from here on out. And to that end, here are some of the most quotable quotes from his address, combining critical analysis with his characteristic bluntness and pragmatism. 

On leadership 

“Mbeki was very heavy-handed. He used to say that you are free to differ, but he would send subtle messages that you are not so free. He clamped down on debate.”

“When I see a T-shirt with a leader’s face on it, I worry about him. Because he will soon think he is God. We are killing our own leaders this way.”

On the compromises of 1994 

“After 1994 the ANC went very slowly. ‘Hamba kahle.’ We swallowed the doctrines of the world bank and IMF. We became the darlings of these institutions.” 

‘’The issue of a low deficit makes no sense. Any businessperson knows that you have to spend more in order to make more. You borrow – you are in debt; you invest so that you can make more money and pay back your loan. The ANC implemented a different logic.”

“You must spend more to move your economy. Growth is an IMF nonsense concept.”

“You can’t talk the economy into growing. You have to do something. We are watching with interest to see what will be so different from this policy conference.”  

On class oppression

“The underbelly of class oppression and racial oppression are intricately linked – you have to deal with both if you are serious about freedom.”

On the second transition

“The first transition was laced with preoccupation with changing the state machinery – no one asked then, ‘Where is the working class?’

On corporate transformation

“Companies don’t really want to transfer skills. We have to find solutions for corporate transformation elsewhere.”

On the lethargy of black business

“What upsets me about black business is that it wants a share of the white establishment, but they are not wanting to talk about freedom…There is no singing of the liberation song. The ANC must discuss what the role of black business ought to be in the transformation of the economy.”

On political education 

“Political education is the lifeblood of an organisation. The ANC however, closed its political education department in 1994. Why do you think that is so? Is it because those who ran that department did not agree with the policy trajectory?”

Of course, these critical references were thrown out in the comfort of a branch meeting. But for me, it signals hope in the ANC. The branch members were equally critical of the movement in the kind of questions that they were asking, and the underlying theme was that the ANC sold out in 1994. 

Professor Turok, for his part, was at great pains to indicate that the ANC did not sell out, but rather went into strategic retreat in dealing with the issues of the economy as robustly as it should have in 1994. But if these debates on the relevance of the Freedom Charter are anything to go by, we have to believe that something new will emerge out of the ANC’s current round of debates about the need to do something radical to change the economy. 

We require more people like Turok, though – people not beholden to anyone. People who are thoroughly introspective and have the courage of their convictions. Of course, not everyone is immune to the patronage that can disappear when their head rises above the parapet. But even one such voice is a start. DM  

JJ Tabane is CEO of Oresego Holdings. He writes in his personal capacity. 


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