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Prof. Benjamin Turok

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Ben the man

1927  Born in Latvia

1945 Political enlightenment as a student @ UCT

1950 Graduated from UCT Engineer, Land Surveyor

1950 Worked in Rhodesia

1952  Returned back to South Africa: an Organiser Mass Defiance Campaign 1953  Joined the South African Congress of Democrats (COD)

1955 Wrote the economic clause of the Freedom Charter

1955-1962 Banned /Arrested /Tried for Treason/Went underground then sent to prison

1965 Went into exile to Botswana, Tanzania, and then the UK

1990 Returned to SA

2011  Refused to vote for Protection of Information Bill (Secrecy Bill)

2019 Died at the age of 92


In 1945, just fresh out of university after qualifying as a land surveyor, Ben found himself serving in the rural areas of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where he lived on the white-owned farms, and answered to a white farmer called “The man with the smoking eyes”. The young Turok painfully witnessed how these white farmers viciously beat up their black male laborers with no hesitation, fuelling a wave of deep seething anger within him.


When he returned to Cape Town in 1952, he quickly joined the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. He had fallen in love with the communist ideology and joined the communist party. He also worked closely with the ANC and helped organise the mass defiance campaign that led 8,500 people to defy apartheid laws and prompted 100,000 people into the ANC. Ben was asked to contribute to the Freedom Charter which was adopted by the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955 and which today forms the bedrock of the South African Constitution.


One early morning in 1956, Ben was arrested from his home, flown to Pretoria, driven in a Black Mariah along with others like Rusty Burnstein [UNs] and Joe Slovo, to a makeshift courtroom where they were placed in partitioned cages, some of which had people like Madiba, Lotoulie, Moses Kaetany, and others. They were charged with treason on the basis of violence. He narrowly evaded arrest at that point and went on working underground for the ANC, but in 1961, he accidentally left his fingerprint on a bomb and in 1962, he was convicted under the Explosives Act and sentenced to three years in prison, going into exile upon his release.


Ben's life has been characterised by the value he places on truth and ideals over political leanings and this has made him one of his party’s most vocal critics. In 2011, he declined to vote for the unconstitutional Protection of State Information Bill (otherwise known as the Secrecy Bill), an act which saw him be summoned before the ANC’s disciplinary committee. Not long after he found himself being admonished by ANC leadership for prosecuting Dina Pule, Minister of Communications from 2011 to 2013, for gross violations of power and finding her guilty. A fallout of this conviction was a plot against his life, and this saw him living a great deal of his life under security protection. This is a servant leader who has demonstrated that objectively looking after the national interest, far outweighs all forms of partisanship or party interest even if it could potentially cost him his life.

Ben leader

Ethics is everything

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Prof. Benjamin Turok

South African

Public Servant


Joined the South African Congress of Democrats (COD)


1995 - 2014

Served as an ANC MP and as a co-chair of Parliament’s ethics committee


2009 - 2014

Member of National Assembly (Parliament)

Ben the interview

Things You May Not Know About Ben

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother. Watch the full interview, here.

BEN copy.jpg



Always adapting to the needs of the day

"Studied a weird combination of Land Surveying, Engineering, Philosophy and Politics. Well funny enough I’ve been doing it all along. You see, even now I’m doing research on mineral value chains for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and I find that my engineering background is extremely helpful, even though I abandoned the profession a long time ago. And, at the same time, my university education is very weird, it’s engineering, philosophy, and politics and I work mainly in the political economy now. So I'm driven by the needs of the day. Well, fortunately, I'm able to switch and adapt and take seriously whatever I'm doing at the moment, I mean at the moment I would say I am an expert in mineral value chains, I know a great deal about it, and even though it’s not part of my training, it wasn’t part of the engineering I did. I did land surveying which is geology, geography, you know that kind of mathematics. So I do fit in with the needs of the day and I still retain an interest in philosophy."



His fellow communist 'frenemy' Joe Slovo

"I was a communist for many years, for a long time, for decades, and then I began to ask questions about the Soviet Union and I became very uncomfortable, this was in the 70s, and I was a member of a cell in London. in the Communist Party was Joe Slovo and people like that and Joe was then a total Soviet man, you know, totally committed, he changed later, he wrote that excellent little pamphlet ‘How Socialism Failed’ which actually stood on his head you know, everything he had done, you know I mean quite remarkable. But I did not agree, and didn’t accept, the nonsense about the Soviet way of life as being the utopia. I knew it wasn't, and there were lots of distortions in the Soviet Union, and I had practical examples of that, and so I began to speak out, and that is my independence, my non-conformist, not belonging if you may, in a way, in a total way, and so I was able to speak the truth which of course people didn’t like, Joe Slovo didn't like it at all we fought like hell."


His one regret in CODESA negotiations

"I’ve written about this and I’ve actually reflected a little bit negatively about the way the ANC abandoned economic issues in the discussion in exile, but I think you know they were desperate. And the feeling was “let’s get hold of government and then we’ll do what we can”. You mean my latest one or the previous one? (Daniel interjects: the one that speaks to this matter) well I think my Magnum Opus I think is my ‘From Freedom Charter to Polokwane’ which deals with the economic history of the ANC and in that book, I discussed this question of and his people who were negotiating in exile and the fact that economics was dropped and the ANC has never admitted this, but I have confronted people like Pallo Jordan and others and it's quite clear that economic policy was dropped in the interest of a political settlement. My view is that, even if they had to go slow on the economics, we should never have let it go, because in 1994, we had the RDP which was an excellent document for a developmental state. But because we neglected to officially as the ANC you know not everybody likes the RDP, and I can tell you that, I’ve written about it in the book, that when we had a meeting to discuss the RDP, and ready to govern, that period in 1992 about, people like Tito Mboweni and others and Trevor Manuel were very reticent about the RDP, they didn't like it very much, and it was they who inserted paragraphs about fiscal discipline you see, and we allowed them to insert it into the RDP even though it was completely out of character with the rest of the developmental approach. But we allowed them to do it, and they knew and they had already made up the position, that they were going for a government of fiscal discipline. And fiscal discipline has led us to where we are today."




What changed the direction of his life 

"I went to Rhodesia to serve my articles, and I had a team of Africans who were Nyasa (Malawians), and there were six of them and they were very nice guys. I used to go out into the bush, climb mountains and camp at night and so on, and so we were pretty close in so many ways but yet of course there was the social distance, I was boss and I was white and they were black, but so you know one was aware of that all the time. But the turning point really was that I had to stay on farms, and I would live with a white farmer and the Rhodesian farmers are the end of the world, they are violent, one of them was called the man with the smoking eyes, because he used to beat them up like hell. He would just go and beat his labourers up physically without hesitation. And on one occasion I had some trouble with a, what we call the boss boy, who I had borrowed from another team, and he was a rather sullen guy, he didn’t want to work for me, his own boss had gone on leave and I say he was working for temporarily and I didn’t get on at all with him. He was going slow frankly and in the field in the mountains you know, you will need to work, so when I got back to Bulawayo which was the headquarters, I spoke to my boss and said: “Listen this chap is not working with me". He said it’s very simple: ”What you do is you get a hose pipe and you take him into the bush and you beat the hell out of him. But the native commissioner will get you because he’s gonna report you, so make sure there are no physical signs, say you beat him with a hosepipe and not with your fist”. And frankly, that was the atmosphere in Rhodesia."




His fingerprint in the sands of our history

"I got a letter from the national actions council, saying I should present the economic clause of the freedom charter at the congress of the people, well I nearly died of fright… and I was waiting for him to say the economics clause is raw and needs to be amended and low and behold he threw up a PowerPoint onto a screen and there was the economic clause and he said, right! That’s our policy. So you know I have been frankly surprised how that clause has survived, even though government economic policies have become very cautious and very conservative, very far from public ownership… Now, none of the top people were there because they were all banned, you know, the Mandelas, the Slovos, they couldn’t be there. So it was a meeting of middle-level cadres really. And we were given a draft of the Freedom Charter and I read the economic clause and thought “my God,” I have to speak to this, it’s very tame, frankly it was a social-democratic objective. And so I said to the meeting, cheeky as I was: “I don't like this clause”, so they said: “All right, amend it”. So I sat, there and then, and I wrote the new, the existing clause just off the cuff you know and Billy Nair who was there, a trade unionist from Durban, and so the chairman said: “Okay read what you’ve drafted,” you know it was like that ad hoc, so I read what I had drafted and Billy said: “I second it”. So the meeting was then faced with a new economic clause, drafted on the spot. And they said, okay go for it, and so the Freedom Charter was amended with this new clause, much more radical. The clause has not been amended since its adoption."

Interview took place December 2016


The spy cop who lied during the Treason Trial

"There was one cop who was sitting on a motorbike with his notebook and taking notes, you see and he gave evidence in the treason trial, and he read his notes in the treason trial and (Israel) Maisels, lawyer tore it up to pieces because this guy wasn’t very literate, the notes were in different colours, he used black and red and green, and they ask him why did you change colors, what he really did is he doctored the notes when he got to the police station, that’s why he used a different pen, but when he was writing there he was using black you see, but it wasn’t good enough so he went to the police station and fixed his notes. So it was gobbledygook you see. But what comes across is a rather militant speech and I say the workers must take over the mines, in the name of the people, it was workers’ control, and that was the idea. So yes I was pretty radical and of course, today thinking of workers taking over our mining industry is a little bit out of context. But nevertheless, the clause is there for history and no doubt one day it will happen."



When he refused the Secrecy Bill

"...  I was appalled at how far the (Then Minister of Police) Minister Nathi Mthethwa would have powers over the whole public service and indeed over the whole public. The powers were extraordinary. And I felt I can't go along with this, but I still didn't act. I phoned two top lawyers in South Africa, the best constitutional lawyers we have, I phoned them in the morning and I said to them, I only have one quick question for you, is this bill sound? And both said it's unconstitutional and so I said to Mary over breakfast: “You know I didn't like (Daniel interjects ‘ Mary your wife) yes my wife, I said: “I don’t know what to do, don't know what to do”. And then I got in the car to drive to Parliament and as I was driving, the thought rose and I said: “You’re not going to vote for this thing”. And so I decided, it was last minute if you like, I said I don't claim to be a hero, who planned it all and all that, it was a gut reaction. So I got to my office in Parliament and the bells were ringing and I went in and I sat there while certain preliminary things went through. And the bill was put to the vote and I walked out, no I wrote a little note to the Chief Whip.I said: “Dear Chief Whip, I cannot vote for this thing I'm leaving, Ben Turok.” And I sent it to him with a messenger. So he got it as the vote was starting and I walked out. I thought nobody saw me because I did it very quietly and that time I was sitting rather near the back at the door, so I just quietly got my paper and slipped out you see, but one journalist sitting up in the bay saw me. And then the phone started ringing. “What did you do? Why did you do it?”


since  1950's

Gifted, he never wrote one of his speeches

"I never read speeches, I’ve never read a speech in my life, I don’t do that, I have notes and then I talk. So I talked you see, to the masses and there were 3500 delegates. So I was very high and hopped up, very nervous, it was a heck of an occasion."



Ancient Greek in Pretoria prison

"I’m reading Homer's Iliad, you know which because of the ancient Greeks, whom I love enormously, I mean I did one year of the ancient Greeks, in jail, it was my BA, I did philosophy and literature and I fell in love with the ancient Greeks. You know Aristotle, Plato, Heraclitus, Salas (Roman Goddess Salus), Anaximenes I remember them all, and the historians. And they’re wonderful people and wonderful culture as modern as anything today, in fact in some ways better."



Zapiro made him question his loyalty to the ANC

"There’s a Zapiro cartoon, showing me as a sheep, and I’m saying, the blurb says “To bleat or not to bleat”. You see, and I was very angry with Zapiro because he portrayed me as a sheep, which I thought I never was but I did go along with it, you know in 20 years I’ve only abstained once, and so you go on and you make a judgement, is it, even now, I don't resign from ANC. Why not? Even though I dislike very much what’s going on, why don't I resign? The argument is that, the view is, that the ANC still remains the voice of the people, it is the voice of the masses. You see the huge meetings that take place, the conferences of thousands of people or the mass meetings of thousands of people, that’s the vox-populi, and I want to be with the vox-populi, with the people, even though the organisation in its work is doing many bad things. So you know that loyalty is still with me, it's my life, I joined this thing, and I don't want to resign, I think other people should resign, not me."




His stand against corruption that almost cost him his life

"Dina Pule had witnesses and she lied all the way through (She was at the time Minister of Communication ) and a very glamorous lady. The evidence was very hard to get because what had happened was she had a boyfriend who was her business partner and a beneficiary of a lot of dealings with the department and this guy used to travel with her around the world. So we had to get evidence that they’d been on the same flight, that they’d been in the same hotel, that they’d lived in the same room, which he denied. But we got the evidence, through a long hard battle. We got the evidence to prove that they were sharing a bedroom, and also their shared taxis and so on. We had to follow this thing through unfortunately she had Mikel Masutha (an advocate) the present Minister of Justice, he was her defendant, a lawyer defending a lawyer because he was an MP and we were allowed that. And Mike was very stubborn and he kept raising points of order and bringing documents and he delayed, we had four or five days full of hearings, so he sat. And we had masses of documentation, well over a thousand or two thousand pages of evidence and of course they were civil servants from her department who lied as well, who were complicit. So it was a very complicated case, but in the end we found her guilty, and actually strangely enough I was asked, not long ago, to give evidence in a disciplinary hearing against the public servants on the same matter, so they sent me records of hearings again, five volumes of massive documents, so it was a tough case. But during the case I was told, parliamentary security came to see me and said they’ve got information that there was going to be a hit, because this boyfriend was a criminal and he was organising a hit, and so couldn't leave the house without security, I couldn’t drive my own car, on the weekend if I wanted to go out to dinner with my family security will come, you know the restaurant on Fishhoek beach? we went there for dinner, before I could go into the restaurant, security went into the restaurant to case it, look where the exits were, look at where the staff were and they were standing around, and everywhere I went, security all the time. If said I want to go for a walk on the beach they’d say you can’t. If you do that we follow you all the way down. And they fetched me everyday to get to Parliament. We took a different route every time we went to Parliament in case there was an ambush. They took it very seriously. So my office was under surveillance, I couldn’t walk anywhere without security. It was a damn nuisance. So after a while, the temperature cooled down and they thought well it can’t go on forever you know, and anyway I was tired of this. Well I didn’t realise how stressed I was quite frankly, and a couple of months later, I had a heart condition, quite a serious heart condition, and I was in ICU in hospital, and I don’t know whether it was related, but it seems possible that the stress, was also I was terribly busy finishing my book. You see my book of ‘The Parapet’ I was finishing that so you know I continued New Agenda (a South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy edited by Professor Turok) so I had three big jobs to do and it was too much, and so yes I suspect that I caved in from all the stress."


Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Ben's conversation. 

Full Interview 

Be Full Interview
Ben lesson

Servant Leaders 

must be ethical

BEN copy.jpg

"... Ethics is not a matter of rules, it's a matter of an ethical position of a morality. It's not a breach of one rule or another, its a state of mind, its an attitude you see, which had not been articulated, and so I began to read jurisprudence, and so I got in touch with the house of commons and also various other parliaments and said to them, do you have a document which sets out the moral values of your parliament? And very few had it. .."


Daniel in conversation with

Prof. Benjamin Turok


We have to shake it up from the bottom.

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