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Harlan Cloete remembers Ben Turok

13 December 2019

During the turbulent 80s Dr Haran Cloete was a student at UWC (University of the Working Class), where he was introduced to Prof Ben Turok through his book, Africa what is to be done? A seminal piece of work that displayed the prowess of a practical academic (pracademic). Post 94, he finally met his hero in the hallways of the Ivanhoe Park building at the stoepe. By then Prof Turok became the ANC constituency head for Paarl. Here was Cloete’s chance to get to know the man who shared his story of sacrifice and struggle, not with a sense of bravado, but with, I simply did what I had to do .

In this piece, Dr Haran Cloete remembers his hero…

He related how he ran from the corrupt regime, turning his back on white privilege, in the dark of the night across open fields. Navigating barbed border wires into the arms of the uncertainty of exile, with only the promise of freedom. My respect for him continued to grow over the years and he must count as one of the ANCs finest parliamentarians. It is he who said, Paarl was like an intellectual dessert. He did not mean it in a derogatory way. Rather it was a swipe at the silent educated, they who side-step their civic responsibility, who shy away from confronting injustice, specifically around economic exclusion and participation. They the indifferent, committed to self only.

Prof Turok, a Jew, just like Jesus, unashamedly sided with the poor, not afraid to swim upstream which often meant challenging the hegemony of his own party. When the local community radio, Radio KC, struggled in the late 90s to secure a permanent community broadcasting license, he accused the officials of gagging the legitimate community voice and petitioned the then Minister of Communications, Jay Naidoo. We even published an article in the Sunday Times Extra with masked tape around my mouth to illustrate the point. He was relentless.

Years later we reconnected on our way to Joburg and I reminded him of the good old bad days and again thanked him for supporting the KC cause. We chit-chat and invariably return to the question, what must be done? to which he remarked of a senior official in local government, hell of a nice guy, but don’t expect anything from him, he will not change the status quo, there is no will. I agreed. And just the other day it dawned on me, will and commitment knows no skin colour. Because, Prof Turok epitomised it.

The other lesson he shared was the joys of putting your thoughts to paper, the art of writing.

Writing he remarked was the best sex anyone can have. Huh! What do you mean, I ask ? The pure ecstasy of words and the delight of empirical evidence. The chance to challenge, confront and to shape opinion. You can do it over and over again, it is so rewarding, he said with an uncanny smile.

I relayed this thought with many of my colleagues, and the jury is still out on whether the good prof was right or wrong.

I remember Ben Turok as a son of the soil. A towering public intellectual. A principled revolutionary who remained committed to economic transformation and social justice. In life he answered, WHAT IS TO BE DONE. We that remain, must continue to do what must be done.

Think about this. The opposite of Poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is Justice.

#Aluta Continua. #workplacejustice #socialjustice

Dr Harlan C A Cloete is an extraordinary lecturer at the School of Public Leadership (SPL) – Stellenbosch University. His main research interest is exploring evidence based HRD governance systems in the public sector with a keen interest in local government.