Ben Turok, the carmudgeonly and stoic socialist activist, Member of Parliament and academic, who died on Monday at age 92, was a difficult character.
Born in Lithuania of Jewish parents and arriving in South Africa as an emigrè and prime target of Afrikaner anti-semitism, he grew up with a strong sense of social justice and awareness of the system of racial segregation and apartheid – and threw all his life’s efforts into overthrowing it.
His office on the second floor of the old House of Assembly building in Parliament, just around the corner of Jeremy Cronin’s, became a veritable classroom for me when I was a parliamentary reporter for Beeld between 2006 and 2011.
Spacious, with two bay windows looking across the cobblestoned Parliament Street and right above the portcullis which accesses the grand Houses of Parliament, it was a place where I often went when I didn’t understand the inner and often indecipherable workings of the ANC’s caucus.
“Have you read ‘Through the Eye of the Needle?'” he asked me during one of my first visits there.
“No, prof, I haven’t,” I replied.
“Have you read ‘Strategy and Tactics’?” he responded.
“No…” I sheepishly reiterated my lack of theoretical understanding of the ANC.
“Then go and read it and don’t come back until you’ve finished it!” he exhorted as he basically waved me out of his office.
I did as I was told and read as many of the ANC’s internal documents as I could: Strategy and Tactics, Through the Eye of the Needle, conference documents, Morogoro resolutions, Ready to Govern… and then it was exam time.
Normally members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery could just doorstop anyone you wanted.
Often you’d follow Trevor Manuel to his office so he could explain something to you (or threaten to call your editor) or walk with the chief whip to ask some probing questions.
Turok was different.
You had to work through one of his two assistants to get an appointment. Which is what I did.
One quiet morning in Parliament – of which there are many – I mustered up the courage to go and visit Turok again, and was allocated a slot in his diary.
His office, spacious and flooded with sunlight that came through the huge bay windows, was always more than a little untidy.
He had more than one enormous desk on which order papers, research, copies of Hansard or parliamentary reports were stacked. And above one of the desks, the one at which he sat most of the time, was a large framed photograph of the Treason Trialists in 1956.
I looked at it, confused it with the Rivonia Trial and sat down for my “exam”.
For the next couple of hours we spoke of what the ANC set out to achieve after 1994 and how documents like Strategy and Tactics inform the party’s ideology and how it has been refined and reformed at every national conference since the 1950s.
He expanded on the National Democratic Revolution and reasoned why the ANC has not yet been as successful as it set out to be. And he spoke of the journey the party undertook while in exile and how ideology and beliefs and worldview changed over the years.
In between he told stories of the Treason Trial, how they were rounded up by apartheid police and how the trialists managed to coordinate their stories while in prison and in holding cells at the Old Synagogue in Pretoria, where the trial was held.
And he spoke of the Congress of the People (the real one) in 1955 where he drafted the economic clauses eventually adopted in the Freedom Charter. He told of his friendship with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, of the involvement of this wife, Mary, in keeping the congress movement alive and how the fled to London and later returned.
“The problem with journalists is that they don’t read. Everything is there. The ANC says exactly what it wants to do. It’s all there. Just go and read,” he said when I left his office, with back issues of the nigh unreadbale New Alternatives, the dense policy magazine he edited, in my bag.
Turok became a trusted navigator and guide who unscrambled the opaque world of the ANC for me. He was always available to analyse some or other internal conflict in caucus, the NEC or government and used his personal knowledge of the ANC, its struggle and the personalities that shaped it to explain current events.
When Thabo Mbeki was ousted in September 2008, he told me how he feared the decision by the ANC’s national executive to remove a sitting president was nothing more than a coup, and that although he wasn’t Mbeki’s biggest supporter, it was wrong.
Turok – a party man through and through – was dismissive of Jacob Zuma, and became a vocal critic.
He was also one of the very few ANC MPs who stood firm on principle, first by abstaining to vote for the Protection of Information Bill (he called it “Gestapo-like”) and later, as chairperson of parliament’s ethics committee, insisting that a sitting minister be censured for a shopping spree in Europe.
Turok remained loyal to the ANC, but wasn’t afraid to criticise his party severely and savagely, in return being called “counter-revolutionary” by the party leadership of Zuma.
He questioned the eroding ethics of the party, the corruption of its leaders and the efficiency of the political system.
Turok’s death means that one of the very last links between today’s governing party, beset by criminality and selfish interests and bereft of progressive ideas, and the struggle organisation led by Nobel prize winners who focused on national duty, is gone.
The generation that stood firm during the promulgation of the Suppression of Communism Act, who survived the Treason Trial, bannings, imprisonment, the Rivonia Trial, decades in the wilderness and the negotiations are thinning out.
With Turok’s death the ANC loses institutional memory, knowledge and wisdom of incalculable value without which it cannot survive.