William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

ANC veteran Turok sticks his head above the parapet. Then ducks

A widely touted election scenario is that the African National Congress sees its majority slashed. Waking from its walk on the dark side, the party attributes the erosion of voter trust to President Jacob Zuma’s failings and ousts him as leader.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa takes the reins and South Africa sighs with relief. It’s a heart warming idea but ignores the reality that because of humankind’s innate determination to cling to power, deteriorating situations generally have to hit rock bottom before rebounding. It ignores also that JayZee has spent an entire presidential term on little other than making his position impregnable.

Outside of Parliament, party membership drives in his home province ensure that KwaZulu-Natal has the delegate numbers easily to thwart the recall that he engineered for predecessor Thabo Mbeki. The youth league, too, has been tamed.

Within Parliament he is similarly unchallengeable. The critical posts in Cabinet and government are all occupied by isiZulu speakers, pledging personal fealty to Number One. The party election list has been similarly engineered.

The ANC is now an almost moral-free zone. When the election is over, the principled old-guard that built the ANC into the world’s oldest intact political organisation will virtually all have been sidelined.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is going, as are Trevor Manuel and Ben Turok. They join the likes of Ronnie Kasrils, Pallo Jordan and Mbeki among the spectators. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is still dithering, “consulting with his family”, as the bromide goes.

So did they jump or were they pushed? There’s perhaps a small clue in Turok’s memoir, With My Head Above the Parapet, which comes out next week. It’s a forthright but characteristically even-handed insider account by Turok – who one suspects takes modest pride in his ability to get under the skin of any and every ANC faction, and who chairs the parliamentary ethics committee – of the decline of the ANC.

In the book there is not the slightest intimation of retirement, despite him being in his mid-80s. It is clear that at the time that it went to press, Turok still fully expected to continue in Parliament. He writes, for example, of the ANC’s woes: “Can all this be fixed? I am not sure. I soldier on … I can see no viable alternative,” and then describes with justifiable pride the efforts of his committee.

Possibly Turok changed his mind following the threats against his life, after the ethics committee sank Communications Minister Dina Pule. Perhaps the ANC changed its mind about him when it became clear from the Pule incident that the ethics committee under him was never going to just toe the party line. Either way, it says a lot that the feisty Turok, who knowingly rode into a firestorm by defying the party whip on the media gagging Bill, will no longer be in Parliament, while Pule – guilty of nepotism and unethical conduct – was number 70 on the ANC election list, until she recently withdrew her candidacy.

Whatever the reason, undoubtedly many of Turok’s comrades will be pleased that after May 7, he will be in political limbo. For Turok’s lifelong commitment to the ANC and his disillusionment and revulsion at post-1994 developments shine through the memoir in equal measure.

Turok writes that he is in “no mood to put a rosy gloss” on the ANC’s loss of direction. There is a “tangible layer of uneasiness … a pervasive sense of disappointment”. One of these is racialism.

During the struggle, the ANC was generally “extremely vigilant” in distinguishing between African nationalism and African chauvinism, and in insisting that it was not anti-white but anti-apartheid. But “after 1994, these distinctions seemed to become difficult to uphold… Race discrimination now became the focus”.

Albeit with respectable intentions of increased demographic representivity, “non-Africans began to be sidelined”. Turok in 2011 “tried to alert the leadership to the dangers of this divisiveness, for minority communities retain considerable power to cause disruption… Apart from some private murmurs of appreciation from comrades who had been sidelined … it brought no response.”

Turok, an iconoclast to the last breath, makes clear that the malaise took hold during the Mbeki administration and has “not diminished” under a Zuma presidency “notable for a degree of incoherence in government”, with policy documents “full of inconsistencies and even contradictions, and plans ill conceived and not properly thought through”.

What is to be done? Those pinning their hopes on a rebellion by the ANC’s good angels are likely to be disappointed.

“Having spent most of my life as a cadre, I remain loyal despite reservations.” Although, theoretically, there are limits: “Should I conclude that the ANC has strayed fundamentally … I shall leave. I say ‘fundamentally’ because, even as I write this, I try to balance the achievements … against the awful distortions.”

Tough love is difficult to do. Turok and the other alienated ANC luminaries cannot, it seems, collectively put out enough wattage to pick out a different path for their beloved but ailing party.

Ben Turok’s With My Head Above the Parapet is published by Jacana

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