Ben Turok's insider account of the ANC in power

Andrew Donaldson interviews the ANC stalwart on his new book "With My Head Above the Parapet"

THESE days, Ben Turok is considered a "stalwart". As he puts it in his new memoir, With My Head Above the Parapet: An Insider Account of the ANC in Power, it's a recent "category of recognition" within the African National Congress. Among other things, it means he is now entitled to sit in the front row at such events like the party's 2012 Mangaung conference. He doesn't mind the label. "It's better," he says, "than ‘veteran'. But I'm not ashamed of my age or my longevity. It's rather fun, really. I'm very active. Very busy. I go to work every day."

This is something of an understatement. He may have retired as a member of parliament but, even now, at 87, there is no apparent sign of taking things easy - or of a diminishing work load. During our interview at his Noordhoek home, late in the afternoon, he complains of a mountain of paperwork in his office and speaks with weary resignation of recent meetings with disgruntled Western Cape industrialists.

He could, of course, easily afford to rest on his laurels. Turok has been involved in the liberation struggle for more than 60 years. He was instrumental in drawing up the Freedom Charter in 1955 and, later, made valuable contributions to the socio-economic clauses of the Constitution. He was an ANC MP for almost 20 years and, though a backbencher, his was a powerful presence in the National Assembly.

He is widely respected for his work with the parliamentary joint committee on ethics, which he co-chaired, when it investigated charges of corruption against the then Minister of Communications, Dina Pule, and for his abstention from voting on the controversial Protection of State Information Bill, which earned him censure from the ANC for his "counter-revolutionary conduct".

Those who know him were hardly surprised by his fierce opposition to the proposed secrecy laws. Turok is fiercely loyal to the ANC - but is just as dogged in his determination and readiness to criticise the party for its shortcomings. With My Head Above the Parapet is a sequel to his 2003 account,Nothing But The Truth: Behind the ANC's Struggle Politics. While it reflects on the highs and lows of his career in the National Assembly, it also serves to warn against Parliament's increasingly anti-participatory and less democratic nature.

He was, he admits, not much of a constituency MP. This was not for want of trying - Turok threw himself into "extramural" projects in his various constituencies but met with limited success. Part of the problem, he writes, was that the present "national list" proportional representation system "militates against close and effective relations between MPs and the voters in any given constituency".

There have been two proposals to amend the system - and both suggested an alternative system that combined elements of both the old Westminister-style "constituency" and the proportional representational arrangements.

But the real problem, he says, lay with "the lack of sensitivity" of local authorities. This he discovered with his first constituency, Paarl, after setting up office in Mbekweni, the local township.

"You see, at that time the ANC was in a coalition government with the National Party and, frankly, I think the NP had more power and authority with the officials (in Paarl) than the ANC. This seemed to affect the situation. I think that the problem for MPs, probably even now, is that the state - at local government level - is not responsive. Even at provincial level, and to some degree, nationally.

"So the representation issue, I don't know whether that is a major issue. Certainly in my case I didn't need to elected locally in order to be effective, I was very keen to do my job."

That level of commitment, he maintains, is wholly absent when it comes to service delivery in the Western Cape. He is utterly scathing of the Democratic Alliance.

"We're the design capital of the world, Cape Town, and all that. And look at the protests. Look at [the southern Peninsula township of] Masiphumelele. It's a scandal. I'm afraid the DA is not an improvement on the ANC from the point of view of the townships. The ANC wasn't very good. And the DA is is worse. They spend an awful lot of money . . . I'm not being political, now, but the DA is not delivering to the black people of Cape Town, and it's outrageous, and I'm very angry about it. When you go to Masiphumelele in winter, in these rains, my God, what's going on there, you know, [National Council of the Provinces chair] Thandi Modise's farm is a luxury compared to what people are living like in Masiphumelele. It's awful. I know what I'm talking about, I've been there. It is outrageous. Design capital of the world? My foot!

"So, you see, the officials are still like that, as far as the townships are concerned. So if I was elected for this area here, I would just go grey with frustration, because - you know, my wife's involved in Masiphumelele, and she helps them here and there - it is terrible. The council don't listen, they do nothing, they don't spend money. And it's outrageous."

Turok is as forthright when it comes to the ANC's shortcomings, especially in his book's penultimate chapter, which he's simply titled "Malaise". It's "an honest account of my own mounting unease over the past twenty years (he writes). It also reflects concerns shared with me by many comrades and colleagues within the movement. . . It was not an easy chapter to write."

Turok shares, for example, his disquiet at the increasing marginalisation within the ANC of whites and non-Africans of colour.

"Yes, there should be debate about this. I've written about it. I've written a letter to the secretary general [Gwede Mantashe] about this. You see, in my day, when I joined, we were terribly keen and diligent about maintaining a public profile of non-racialism, so wherever we went or had a meeting, we'd have a mixture of a delegation. There'd be an African, a coloured, a white and an Indian, in order to demonstrate the multi-racial character of the movement. We were very diligent. And the leadership was. People like Bram Fischer, Dr [Yusuf] Dadoo, Reg September, these were national names, well-known to everybody, and whenever there was a conference, you'd have those figures, those photographs [mounted in the hall]. Delegates would know that these are the national heroes. And, deliberately, the multi-racial character was exhibited. Not anymore.

"I mean, Jessie Duarte is a coloured woman, and she was elected as a deputy secretary general, but if you go to an ANC conference, the leaders are all African. You know, if you take the centenary, the pictures that I recall in Bloemfontein [in 2012], of the national centenary celebrations, yes, there was reference to Bram Fischer, but you know it wasn't the same. There's no deliberate attempt to . . . and if you say to people in the ANC, the leaders, ‘Why don't you do it?' they say, ‘Because these communities are moribund, they're not helping.' And it's true. The Indians are not very active now. The coloureds are not very supportive. The whites are certainly not there. There are very few of us whites who are still active."

Is there not, I ask, a possibility that this marginalisation had contributed to a frustration with the ANC, hence the "not very supportive" or inactive members?

"Frankly, there's a kind of opportunism. When there's a job to be filled, you fill it with somebody close to you or whatever and there's a feeling that Africanism is a strong motif and ‘these minorities,' as they call them, ‘are no longer really part of the struggle and they benefitted in the past, and it's our turn.'"

And the antipathy towards "clever blacks"?

"That's not widespread within the party. Maybe outside. It's [President Jacob] Zuma's term. But it's not general. I'm afraid that Zuma has been quoted around that, but it's not general, no."

Of greater concern, Turok feels, are the failures of government's conservative economic policies.

"Many of the hopes we had for socio-economic gains have not been realised. Many people still live very poorly. In the rural areas but also in the townships. And the reasons for that are hard to determine. My view, and this is what I deal with in all my books, is that Gear [the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy put in place by President Thabo Mbeki's government] killed us. And we're still there."

What should we have done? (Turok is an economics professor, and the answer doesn't come in a nutshell.)

"Internationally, the debate is stimulus or austerity. That's the debate. The United States has chosen stimulus. They are pumping huge amounts of money into their economy. Many people believe that if they hadn't done that they'd have had a very serious recession in the US. Europe has not done quite so much as that kind of pumping. Certainly, southern Europe, where these problems lie, have moved to austerity, and I can give you dozens of articles from leading financial journals which argue that austerity leads to stasis. Austerity budgeting leads to the freezing of the real economy.

"It's obvious. If you don't lend, and if you tighten up on the budget and you don't spend, there's no money to invest, and if the government doesn't invest, then the private sector won't invest. We have followed a prudent policy of deficit reduction, inflation-targeting and all that, and if you do that, you're going to freeze your economy. And our economy's frozen.

"Now, to me, it's common sense. But you know, ‘clever' economists - ha! - argue that you have to act responsibly and even the ministers, one after the other, say we have to be responsible, we mustn't be irresponsible, we must be seen to be responsible by the ratings agencies, by the IMF, the World Bank, etc, etc. Well, you can behave responsibly, but if your economy's not growing above 2%. . . In fact, our economy's not growing at all, because if you put in the per capita GDP, we're stagnant.

"Now. Ask yourself. Why are we stagnant? Why is the real economy not growing? Manufacturing, mining, agriculture, they're not growing. Is it because of skills? Is it because of the labour market? Is it because of . . . whatever, China? To me, it's simple. If the government doesn't invest, then the private sector won't invest, and the economy stalls.

"Now we're talking about this big infrastructure programme - R800bn over three years - but if you read between the lines, we can't see the money. Where is it? And I think that the money's not there. Is Eskom going to spend hundreds of billions? Please! Eskom and Transnet are the two big parastatals. Eskom is in trouble. Transnet is spending quite a lot but they can't lift the whole economy. They are spending several hundred billion, yes, but the budget isn't. Capital expenditure is reduced. Are you surprised that the economy is stagnant? Am I being stupid? I don't think so."

Turok speaks with some scorn of government's "extreme sensitivity to international opinion".

"The ratings agencies are ruling the world. And the IMF [the International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank. When they say anything, the Minister of Finance. . . you know, Trevor Manuel, he was terribly sensitive to their voices. Terribly. Terribly. I was in the finance committee for ten years and he'd come to the finance committee all the time and say, ‘Wah-wah-wah . . . be careful, the IMF, you know, or the ratings, the investors, the cry of international business. . .'

"Look at how international investment is flying into Angola. Angola is growing at 17% and that is a corrupt government, (a country with) lousy infrastructure - but loads of oil. So, if you've got resources, they will come, and whether you are prudent or not prudent, that's secondary. If there's money to be made, they'll come. So if our mining industry was working and everything was okay and if we were producing loads of motor cars and so on, people will come. We're not managing our resources very well."

And the Angolans are?

"The Chinese are there in full force. The Chinese are building roads and railways in Angola. Why do they do that there, and they don't do that here? They're making money like crazy. So the Chinese are not here in full force? Why? Because our bloody stuff is not working.

"I can tell you, my dear chap, I'm doing research right now, on polymers. And Sasol? Well, Sasol has killed manufacturing in South Africa. I was talking to companies today. Our manufacturers are paying import parity prices for polypropylene, which means that they're paying the same price as somebody in Japan. For South African polypropylene. So we're paying the same price as somebody in Japan. Despite the transport costs and all that. Import parity!

"I was talking today to a company in Belville, they employ 450 people and they make buckets and all sorts of plastic goods and the director told me this afternoon, ‘We are being choked to death by Sasol. Because they are the only suppliers of their inputs.' This is not running an economy! Who the hell would invest in a plastic factory in South Africa? I wouldn't. Who's going to invest in South Africa? No way!"

"It's the same with steel, you know? Mittal Steel charges import parity prices. So you know [local companies] are paying foreign finance for steel which is just up the road. If you put a factory right next to Mittal Steel you'd think that you could something from the factory gate at a price lower than somebody lower in Japan? No! You're paying Japan prices. They're killing us!"

You would think, of course, that government would address these problems, not so?

"Well, you talk to the Minister [of Trade and Industries], Rob Davies, who screams about this all the time. He complains. And there are forces at work and so the cabinet doesn't take those decisions. It's the cabinet that must decide. And he's screaming about it all the time. I've got a mountain of paper in my office -- like this -- on this stuff. And [Trade and Industries and the Industrial Development Corporation] are screaming and working with business and manufacturers and it doesn't happen. So who's going to invest? And then China comes in and you're finished. China doesn't hesitate. They're subsidised. We don't subsidise, but they do."

With that, he suggests we wind up the interview. One last question: His ANC colleagues, what was their reaction to the book?

"The reaction has been very good. And I'm astonished, because I say some pretty hard things, and I've not had a single nasty word about it. Not from the leadership of the ANC, not from anybody. It's extraordinary. When I say to people, ‘Why isn't anybody attacking me?' they say, ‘Because you're old!' Well, you know, I'm not sure that's it, but some of my comrades say, ‘Well, it is respect for the elderly and the stalwarts.'

"I think it's more than that. I think the book's good."

With My Head Above the Parapet: An Insider Account of the ANC in Power

By Ben Turok

(Jacana) R225

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter