A review of Ben Turok’s new book

Ben Turok: With My Head above the Parapet
A review by David Kenvyn

Anyone who knows Ben Turok would expect his book, reflecting on the 20 years since the end of apartheid to be perceptive, witty, acerbic and honest to the point of brutality. Which it is. And which is why it is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand present day South Africa.
.Ben has spent the last 20 years as a Member of the South African Parliament, representing the African National Congress. He was a Treason Trialist in the 1950s, then a political prisoner and fled the country to spend years in exile in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and the UK. He has without question dedicated his life to the liberation of his country, and this is what makes this book so interesting.
In the six chapters of this book, Turok analyses the Mandela presidency, the Mbeki years, the rise of Jacob Zuma, his own work as an MP and an activist, the “malaise” that he considers to be affecting the ANC, and the way forward.
Turok argues that one of the failures of the Mandela presidency was the delivery of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), and its replacement by the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR). The abandonment of the RDP was, Turok argues, the time when that ANC deserted radical economic strategies for the orthodoxies supported by the IMF and the World Bank. Turok regards this as detrimental to the transformation of the economy for the benefit of the majority of South Africans. He argues that Black Economic Empowerment should not just apply to the few, and he is clear that “trickle down” does not work.
Turok is also concerned about the lack of capacity of the ANC to deliver political education. He has made considerable efforts to run programmes in the Parliament to enable MPs to come to understand the political and economic environment in which they operate, but he is concerned that this has not been delivered at branch level. One of the areas of difficulty that he cites is the failure of the ANC to publish political education leaflets for their members. He feels that this is a key area in which the ANC is failing its members to the detriment of future political activity.
He is also concerned about the levels of corruption that appear to be affecting the ANC in government at every level. It appears to me that this is an area in which we British have to be very careful before leaping to judgements. We have a hereditary head of state, a government that is chosen from four or five fee-paying schools (incidentally, these schools claim charitable status and we subsidise the parents heavily) and two universities, land ownership concentrated into the hands of the descendants of thieves, brigands and murderers, or people who obtained ownership by bribery and corruption, or by sleeping with Charles II. It seems to me that we are in no position to condemn other countries as corrupt, when it is so endemic in our political system that wed do not even consider the possibility that it is so. Turok, however, is right to be concerned about the situation because this means that something can be done to address the problem before corruption takes root. And, as the chair of the parliamentary committee on ethics and standards, Turok has led the charge, taking successful action against a number of ministers and officials.
Turok is also clearly not enamoured on the current administration. He particularly dislikes the demagoguery and populism which is Jacob Zuma’s style at mass meetings. He is critical of the singing of inflammatory liberation songs such as “Umshini Wam” which has become a trademark of Zuma speeches. He is also dismissive of what he describes as the opportunism of Julius Malema.
This, however, is nothing to the criticism that he launched publicly against The Protection of State Information Bill, which he describes as “unnecessary” and “overkill”. Turok did not vote for the bill and as a consequence received a document from the ANC charging him with “counter-revolutionary conduct”. Unsurprisingly, Turok found this offensive and he says that it was only the intervention of Pallo Jordan that persuaded him to respond in an appropriate manner. He was eventually brought before an ANC disciplinary committee, chaired by Derek Hanekom, and the charges were dismissed.
All this sounds as if Turok only has criticism for the ANC record as government. This is not the case. He is justifiably proud of what has been achieved in terms of service delivery, such as housing, access to clean water, education and a host of other areas. He argues however that there is still much to be done to deliver the second phase of transition – a change in the balance of economic power – following the success of the struggle for national liberation. This requires a radical shift in priorities for the economic management of the country, and Turok is very aware of that. He does not believe that this can be achieved by the waving of some kind of magic wand. Turok believes that the transformation of the economy is a long-haul objective.
One of the things that I am aware of is that, in such a short review, it is more that possible to distort the subtleties and intricacies of the arguments that Turok puts forward. The need to simplify can mislead. That is why I would urge people to try and read this book themselves.
There is, of course, one problem with this. The book is published by Jacana Media in Cape Town and I have no evidence that it is available in the UK. The marginalisation of African publishing is, of course, another matter.


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