19 May 2014

An organic intellectual trapped in parliament

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 298: An organic intellectual trapped in parliament / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
19 May 2014

Ben Turok bemoans the lack of free thinking in the ANC parliamentary caucus, with loyalty often trumping dissent, writes Adekeye Adebajo

Ben Turok, a 69-year veteran of South Africa's liberation struggle — author of the economic clause in the Freedom Charter, treason trialist and political exile — and an octogenarian member of the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP), has recently produced an important, succinct and readable insider account, With My Head Above the Parapet.

The book covers the ANC's past 20 years in power and Turok pulls no punches. This is a story that is well told with gusto, intelligence and honesty. Several writers involved in the executive and judiciary have published books, but far fewer accounts have been produced from the perspective of the legislature, making this a particularly valuable contribution. Its focus is on the political economy of South Africa's governance performance, and Turok sat on the parliamentary finance and trade and industry portfolio committees.

While acknowledging some of the successes since 1994, including public services and social welfare, Turok focuses on the persistent poverty and unemployment that continue to make South Africa the most unequal society in the world.

He notes that "there is a pervasive sense of disappointment with the character of the ANC today, its loss of direction and the slippage from its historical mission", but he does not feel — unlike some of his comrades — that his life-long commitment has been betrayed.

He dislikes the label of politician intensely, as "it is usually associated with hypocrisy and opportunism", and views himself instead more as an "organic intellectual trapped in Parliament". He bemoans the lack of free thinking in the ANC parliamentary caucus, with loyalty often trumping dissent and a herd mentality prevailing.

Turok is effusive in his praise for Nelson Mandela, describing his self-confident, charismatic, considerate, sometimes imperious leadership, as well as his wisdom and impressive listening skills.

The warmth and adulation with which Mandela was always received in Parliament is eloquently described.

A central part of the book narrates the tale of the switch from the socially redistributive Reconstruction and Development Programme to the more conservative Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (Gear) strategy in 1996. Trevor Manuel, Tito Mboweni and Alec Erwin come across as ideological opportunists in their embrace and vigorous defence of conservative economic policies. Along with then deputy president Thabo Mbeki, Turok describes how this quartet manipulated debates and decisions within ANC structures to maintain an insistence on economic policies promoting growth, privatisation and a small state, under intense pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

He notes that Gear was "imposed" on the country without consultation within the ruling tripartite coalition. This led the government, in his view, away from job creation and infrastructure spending to "stabilisation" and fiscal rectitude.

It also led, between 1996 and 2000, to spending on public services falling 4.5%, and hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost. Turok further notes that the lowering of tariffs contributed to deindustrialisation, rather than promoting manufacturing and small-scale enterprises.

He bemoans the failure to invest sufficiently in creating a skilled workforce and bluntly criticises the "deployment" of cadres as having adversely affected government administration and Parliament.

Mandela's successor, Mbeki, is depicted as an aloof, complex and stubborn figure. In true Machiavellian fashion, he was more respected than loved by his party.

Turok observes that Mbeki's presidency came to dominate government through a centralised style of micro-management, with Parliament becoming less democratic and participatory.

He, however, notes that Mbeki's first presidential term was "fairly successful", with public spending being maintained in nominal terms and Mbeki obtaining the highest electoral mandate for the ANC (66% in 2004).

The author observes a sharp decline before the end of Mbeki's second term, with increasing corruption and factionalism, and poorly performing ministers often failing to brief Parliament on their work.

He highlights some of the low points under Mbeki: the allegation of a "plot" against senior ANC figures in 2001, the "AIDS denialism", the failure to spend a R400m surplus in 2006 on social welfare and infrastructure, the lack of decisiveness in tackling the arms deal and the parliamentary "Travelgate" scandal.

Turok depicts President Jacob Zuma as a resilient political survivor who never overcame his limited education, while acknowledging his "evangelical" charisma and peacemaking role in KwaZulu-Natal.

He, however, notes that there may now be more amaZulu in government than amaXhosa, thus breaching the ANC taboo against ethnicity.

The author notes that he feels a deep loyalty to the ANC and his ability to keep raising contentious issues in the media meant that he could remain silent on corruption rather than resign.

The question many may want to ask, however, is: having walked out on the vote for the Protection of State Information bill — which Turok describes as "undesirable and unconstitutional" — in 2011, should he perhaps have fallen on his sword?

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

This article is part of a series of fortnightly columns written by Adekeye Adebajo for Business Day every other Monday.

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