Thursday, 27 March 2014

Ben Turok exits parliament with honour

Veteran ANC leader Ben Turok recently announced his retirement from Parliament. This decision comes after a long and consistent role in progressive politics.
Why an article focusing on Turok and the milepost he has reached? There are more flamboyant characters saying farewell to the hallowed halls of parliament and its green benches. Unlike notable figures such as Kgalema Motlanthe and Trevor Manual, Turok has continually functioned in more behind-the-scenes roles. His exit is also interesting because it comes when the ANC faces stronger opposition to its left, when left-leaning views such as those held by Turok are sorely needed inside the broad church that is the ANC.
Born in Latvia, Turok arrived as a child in SA in the 1930s. He went on to train as a land surveyor and was drawn towards politics. In his mid-twenties, he joined the Congress of Democrats (COD) in the Western Cape in 1953, becoming a full time organiser. In 1955, Turok stood trial for treason, but the charges were later withdrawn. In the fifties, Turok worked as a trade unionist, was as a national official of COD and partook in the drafting of the Freedom Charter. As an MK operative, Turok was arrested in 1962 for sabotage and subsequently served three years in prison before going into exile.
Despite this longer history, it is his work in recent times when he has served “in both political and academic capacities for the ANC” that captures attention. Turok made a salient contribution to fostering a culture of debate and reasoned discussion on policy in the ANC in the last 20 years.

Since the unbanning, Turok has been a campaigner for a stronger stance on economic transformation within the broad forum that is the ANC. In the early nineties, using his Institute for African Alternatives, he worked to set up local development forums. These forums were mechanisms for increasing power from below, inviting communities to set their own development priorities. But these structures were abandoned – we all forsook them. We took “the line” that centralised political mobilisation was needed for the 1994 elections and that, thereafter, ward committees should be used to discuss local development needs.
Turok has continued to promote ideas, thinking and debate through his journal, New Agenda. The journal provided information about democracy, explored continental issues, carried union leader interviews, and looked more closely at strategies such as beneficiation and industrialisation. These debates helped to sustain democracy. They continued to highlight the difference between economic growth – an increase in economic output – and development, which Turok says means “an improvement in the human condition”.
However, New Agenda remained within defined parameters. It broadly tracked alliance debates. However, it gave little space to radical voices beyond the alliance camp, those heretical and provocative voices that could have warned leaders and officials of dangerous future scenarios that they would rather not think about. It also did not sufficiently showcase struggles on the ground nor properly analyse the role of civil society activism in driving policy change.
Turok has reflected deeply on how the ANC, at the point of transition, adopted a “conservative” approach to economy change. He has noted that although this was not what the country needed, he could see that there were reasons this position was adopted. He told the Financial Mail: "It was a very tense time. Our grip on power seemed provisional. One had to take into account the environment, which included the fact that the Soviet Union had told the ANC that it would not continue helping it."  
He has held on to his basic criticism over the years. He argued in the African Communist last December that “the ANC government has been rather cautious in the implementation of economic policies and has pursued orthodox economic policies. This has led to stalling in some key sectors of the economy”.

Turok remains a critic of the 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy, a policy which reduced the budget deficit but which failed to generate jobs. Referring to Gear, Turok argued that the ANC had two strands: “the one was a progressive agenda of redistribution; the other focused on budget austerity and macro-economic stabilisation, and the latter won out.”

Turok’s departure from parliament is not without controversy – but certainly with his integrity intact. He received a grilling from fellow ANC parliamentarians after he chaired a committee that found Dina Pule guilty of breaching the code of conduct for MPs. Last November, the ANC also rebuked Turok after he walked out of parliament to avoid voting for the Protection of State Information Bill.

It is an irony that, as the old stalwart bows out, tired and bruised, Dina Pule has made it back on to the ANC’s electoral list. A sign of changing times, generational shifts as well as a change in culture as the ANC completes the change from movement to party in power.

Although he steps out of formal politics, Turok has not thrown in the towel. Indications are that, through his writing, he will continue to engage us on the need for progressive economic policy that will help South Africa overcome inequality and unemployment.

Frank Meintjies

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