Ben Turok’s commitment to liberation, non-racialism and equality

Turok, who died at 92, was committed to fighting for the ideals of the left in South Africa. It is worth reviewing what his contribution to these ideals were in the final chapter of his life.

Ben Turok. Screen grab from Ian Landsberg Youtube.

Since the news of his passing broke, tributes have poured in for Professor Ben Turok who died at his home in Cape Town in the early hours of the morning on December 9th, 2019. These have lauded his many public contributions: a dedicated anti-apartheid activist, he wrote the nationalization clause of the 1955 Freedom Charter, served time in solitary confinement and as an exile in the UK before returning to South Africa in 1990. Under a democratic dispensation, he served as an MP and chaired the Ethics Committee where he (in)famously investigated Minister Dina Pule and abstained from voting on the Secrecy Bill (as discussed in an interview on this site earlier this year).

In articles, radio and television interviews, and tweets, we have seen a common thread: an outspoken activist with strong convictions that was fiercely independent. Ben’s commitment to a set of principles even when these were unpopular is what set him apart from most. That was true of him as a white person under apartheid who chose to reject the benefits, which may come with that identity in a racist system; and it was also true of him as a member of the ANC who didn’t always agree with what his party was doing. These characteristics and contributions are critical and must be remembered. But for us who worked with him at the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA), it is the projects that he chose to pursue in the last five years of his life that indicate where his passions lay and which we hope will not be lost in his commemoration.

Democratizing debate

Ben was a strong believer in the idea that everyone, everywhere should be able to access and engage with policy debates. He loathed jargon. “Who are they trying to impress?” he would ask, and then pressed us to simplify our prose and clarify our meaning. This was a firm principle for New Agenda, the journal that IFAA published and he edited. Ben was adamant that its purpose was to allow for ordinary South Africans to have access to important debates and that this prohibited technical language or unnecessary detail. While the staff often focused on increasing New Agenda sales in Johannesburg or Cape Town, one of Ben’s points of pride was that the journal found shelve space in the tiniest town in the most remote province. He would relish reading out the names of all the rural areas where even just one copy had been sold.

Student and youth politics

Ben was fiercely committed to the development of political consciousness in South Africans, especially young people. He was always ready to develop and deliver courses on South African political history, political economy and revolutionary social theory for university students, comrades in the ANC and the broader liberation movement. Tweets from young activists about the impact of his political education program would have made him happier than any of those from people in power.

He believed political education was key for any movement to achieve emancipation. He printed pamphlets on Fanon, on socialism, on Marxism, on old ANC policy documents and debates, and then demanded they be distributed widely, as years of IFAA interns can attest. He was insistent that face-to-face contact was the only way to build power and was reluctant to rely on social media or “on-the-line” activities as he called them. This belief gave him the energy to continue to go out and speak to young people even as he tired of reliving his history in the struggle. During our time at IFAA, Ben delivered lectures in numerous departments at several universities across the country. More recently he visited the University of Cape Town’s Department of Philosophy and Politics, the University of the Western Cape’s Department of Education, and Stellenbosch University’s new Social Justice chair under the direction of Thuli Madonsela (the country’s former Public Protector). He never refused an invitation if he could help it.

Of course, Ben took a serious interest in the student movement that began in 2015 and saw much promise in the new political energy of young people. In an editorial he wrote in New Agenda, he praised the students for showing “great courage and tenacity” in winning commitments for fee increase freezes, for an end to outsourcing and forcing through debates on curriculum reform. In addition, he praised those who stood up to “massive intimidation by police and private security guards” and for “rightly calling out the Oxbridge mentality of our universities.”

It was in this context that we met Ben as graduate students sympathetic to the cause of “decolonizing” the universities. In the years prior to 2015, he had been conducting political education work at UCT—his alma mater and an institution that he believed he had a personal duty to reform. He gave these classes to keep a tradition of political and progressive thinking alive at a university that badly needed shaking out of its smug liberal complacency. However, he—and we—felt that more needed to be done to promote an intellectual and political culture, which perhaps needed to take place outside of campus. That is how the IFAA Forum began, taking place each Sunday morning in IFAA’s offices in the Cape Town CBD. It would be an opportunity for progressive students to share their work and ideas with peers. Despite being nearly three times the age of the next oldest person in the room, Ben—as was his way—was frequently the most vocal and challenging contributor to the conversation. The first topic was “Kant and Ubuntu,” something that Ben enjoyed but thought—in his words—a little “indulgent.”

The topic in fact presaged an emerging conversation about the relationship between so-called “Western” and “African” knowledge. This conversation hit fever pitch not long after the student movement for “decolonization” became more and more pronounced. The mandate of the forum continued on, but the discussions became increasingly political and tense. The idea was to stage actual political debates and test ideas in real time, but this proved difficult to manage given the intensity with which arguments were being promoted and defended. The results were often productive but turned sour as an orthodoxy settled in determining and policing what constitutes authentic “black” or “white” or whatever forms of knowledge. It was easy, at the worst of times, for critics of this emergent discourse to be labeled “counter-revolutionary,” “non-white” and so on. It took significant courage and fortitude to persist in this environment.

Ben’s encouragement, along with other politically experienced comrades within the organization and in the broader left civil society space (including editors of this blog), was crucial for a group of progressive students who were supportive of the mission to decolonize but could not reconcile themselves to a politics of racial essentialism and nativism. Ben demanded that forums continue and that IFAA provide a platform for a wide range of views. He often joked that our reluctance was precious and naïve. He would fondly retell a story of how, while approaching a platform at a mass rally in Zambia, the Guyanese leftist historian, Walter Rodney, once hid him from the view of black nationalist Stokely Carmichael in order to secure a “whitey” a place on the stage. Once the trick was done, Carmichael was furious, but neither Ben nor Rodney faltered in their principled commitment to non-racial comradeship.

Ben’s own politics on race and decolonization were on show at a recent speech he delivered to an audience at UWC on “Africa Day.” He wasn’t a naïve color-blind “rainbowist,” a popular slur hurled at anyone defending non-racial politics these days. As he stated:

Let us recognize, and be bold about it, that the legacy of internal colonialism is still very strong and affects our society every day. The question in my mind, as one who believes in non-racialism, as one who believes in the Freedom Charter, as one who believes in the Constitution of South Africa, and that South Africa belongs to all of us, I hope that that formulation does not cover up the fact that the colonial legacy is still very strong. We can’t deny that. Even though we are for non-racialism, even though we are against racism, we can’t deny the continuation of colonial relationships in our society.

Yet this recognition did not lead to a politics of despair or one circumscribed by the walls of “identity.” He continued:

I told you that I am a white African. I have no identity crisis at all. I know what I am. I know what I have done. I know what I stand for. I apologize for nothing at all. I know my identity [applause], and I am not going to get into debates about my identity. I know who I am. I understand if some people want to raise questions about their role in society, but let us not say that that is more important than understanding the legacy of internal colonialism as a system … We have a hell of a lot to do.


Ben’s major obsession, however, was with the South African economy and the profound failures of the dominant macroeconomic orthodoxy of the post-apartheid era. He would often quote from the ANC’s 1969 Morogoro Conference:

We have already referred to the special character of the South African social and economic structure. In our country—more than in any other part of the oppressed world—it is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning without a return of the wealth of the land to the people as a whole. It is therefore a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact is to feed the root of racial supremacy and does not represent even the shadow of liberation.

In the same address at UWC he noted various attempts of postcolonial governments to achieve self-reliance and return the wealth of the land and economy to the people as a whole. But also how that was historically undermined by the Bretton Woods institutions and in the present day by the apostles of fiscal discipline and macroeconomic consolidation. IFAA was founded, by Ben and other radical political economists, to challenge this orthodoxy and has continued to do so with great enthusiasm and energy under Ben’s lead.

Office conversations would almost always end up in the context and the results of the transition: The Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) being drawn up and prepared, the work of the Macroeconomic Research Group MERG group with which one staff member participated, the hopes of a “growth through redistribution” strategy, all finally being washed away with the emergence of Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR). And later, the emergence of a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) corporate elite, a development that Ben bemoaned and linked to Fanon’s concept of the “national bourgeoisie” who profited off limited race-based instruments of redistribution and would always be ready to deploy intense racial invective—like “White Monopoly Capital” and “Radical Economic Transformation” to secure expanded means of accumulation.

Ben made it an obsession to keep interrogating both the orthodox macroeconomic consensus and the emergent new black elite, which he saw as mutually self-constitutive, a point since elaborated on in an influential work by sociologist Karl von Hodt. Ben remained deeply concerned with understanding why some within the ANC had adopted orthodoxy, and he fiercely rejected simplistic accounts of a “sell-out.”

In the last few years we were at least buoyed by growing global recognition that structural adjustment was a failure, that austerity has not worked, that privatization, corporatization, and the deregulation of financial markers has led to vast increases in global inequality. The “End of History” was actually only the “Beginning of Insanity.”

All seem to agree, except South Africa’s mainstream economic commentariat who are joined only by the most outwardly reactionary global figures whose support for the rich has now lost all veils of pretense. Ben made it a priority to voice this in public as regularly as he could through various op-eds he wrote, radio interviews, and television broadcasts. The staff at IFAA were tasked with carrying out this work and challenging mainstream economic thinking in South Africa to move with the times while also acknowledging the deep dysfunction that has beset state institutions after years of plunder in the name of “black empowerment.”

In his final year, Ben felt it necessary to communicate directly to the country’s highest office, such was his sense of the urgency of the situation. With a group of comrades, he penned several letters to President Cyril Ramaphosa demanding government abandon its orthodox positions. He arranged several seminars with progressive economists to map an alternative path for South Africa’s economic renewal, trying to inject confidence and coherence to a growing community that has been nonetheless marginal in actual policy decision making. He was frustrated with the release of Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s latest budget speech, which seemed to reaffirm government’s commitment to fiscal “discipline.”

But Ben would not give up. Another letter came and this time to ordinary MPs. If the presidency wouldn’t listen, perhaps those on the benches would carry on the fight as he did from their position years ago. He wrote: “Wide ranging budget cuts will do much damage to the economy as it will reduce aggregate demand for goods and services which is what the economy sorely needs.” The Treasury “…has based their policies on austerity an approach that has been severely criticized internationally even by members of the IMF.” His message to MPs was clear: reject austerity! We hope that his efforts to fight this will not be in vein.

Ben’s ethic of openness and debate

We did not always agree with Ben on all issues of politics or economics. Office debates were lively and robust, yet always enlightening. Ben’s life was immersed in the debates of the liberation movement and his outlook was fundamentally shaped by that. As leftists who grew up in a democratic South Africa and outside of party structures, Ben’s political formation was largely foreign to us.

But Ben’s commitment never circumscribed the scope of his conversation and the breadth and depth of his knowledge. He forced us to take seriously the intellectual traditions that shaped the broader South African and international left, while instilling in us an ethic of openness and debate. Ben had never wavered on this principle which had led him into much trouble historically within the South African Communist Party and structures of the ruling ANC, a history which seemed to fill him with pride. This was the ethos of New Agenda, which published from a variety of political orientations making up the broader liberation struggle and movement.

Ben was insistent that his staff read widely; our desks are littered with article clippings that he would diligently cut out and bring to the office, always with the added note that we should be reading more newspapers. He challenged us—sometimes quite forcefully—to say what we mean and to avoid equivocation. His pet peeve was when someone would begin to explain their research agenda with the phrase, “I’m looking at …” “What does ‘looking at’ mean?” he would quip with irritation. His insistence that research had purpose, clarity and was grounded in the real problems of the world is undoubtedly something to which more modern academics should aspire.

The country will surely miss his astute commentary and fearless voice. Ben’s legacy will live on with those continuing to fight for the politicization and conscientization of the youth, the realization of substantive non-racialism and economic equality in our country. We are proud to have been comrades in that struggle during our time under his leadership at the Institute for African Alternatives.

About the Author

Carilee Osborne is a researcher at the Institute for African Alternatives in Cape Town, South Africa.

Michael Nassen Smith is the former Deputy Director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA) and a current PhD Student at York University, Canada.

Further Reading