This Is How History Is Fortified

By Jumoke Verissimo


  • Title: With My Head above the Parapet: An Insider Account of the ANC in Power
  • Author: Ben Turok
  • Publisher: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd
  • Number of pages: 214
  • Year of publication: 2014
  • Category: Politics

‘But there is no room for sentimentality in politics and I am in no mood to put a rosy gloss on where we are now’ (p 11).

This quote from the ‘Introduction’ in Ben Turok’s book, With My Head above the Parapet: An Insider Account of the ANC in Power, prepares the reader for an insightful procedure on the economy and politics of the ANC in power, based on the experience of a veteran and active member of the party. The author, Ben Turok, has given 69 years of his life to the liberation struggle in South Africa. He also served for 20 years in the country’s parliament. His expository observations in With My Head above the Parapet seek to determine how far (or close) the ANC is to its history, as he assesses the directions the political economy of the party has taken under the steering of its leadership in the last two decades.

Interrogating the 20 years of ANC in power from the perspective of the insider-observer, Turok, who was instrumental in drawing up the Freedom Charter in 1955, and made effective changes to the socio-economic clauses of South Africa’s constitution, offers a bare-it-all in With My Head above the Parapet, through his exactness in detailing circumstances around issues and behind-the-scene positions on policies.

While seemingly sentimental in some cases, he is reflective of passion and dedication to a cause – the ANC cause. Being someone who was involved in the legislative process, With My Head above the Parapet becomes a valuable resource in understanding the political journey that has brought South Africa to where it is, or where it is going.

Turok’s observations and an account of how the ANC has performed in South Africa prods the party’s successes and failures, from the aspirational days of Nelson Mandela to the discordant days of Thabo Mbeki and to the advancement of the incumbent, Jacob Zuma, from party loyalist to president.

Perhaps, as someone who understands the vision with which the ANC began, Turok’s interrogation of the system of class imbalance in South Africa, the widening gap in public services and social welfare, and the increasing gap between the ANC parliamentarians and the people they serve is served in several ironic anecdotes. There is the story of an MP who could not drive his newly acquired Mercedes Benz well.

Turok addresses the rise in ethnic scheming, which has today resulted in a higher number of amaZulu than amaXhosa in the government. The author displays an understanding of the prospects of empowerment and, in effect, development in South Africa. His acuity in tracing the development of issues lends his narrative the possessive conviction of his admiration for the remarkable leadership of the ANC, which gave room to a ‘historical mission of national liberation’.

His insights, though springing from a personal perspective, which in effect could leave traces of sentimentality, should broaden debates on where the ANC is heading, especially in the light of current happenings in South Africa. Turok writes: ‘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’.

The first chapter, ‘In Office, but Not in Power? The Mandela Presidency’, has profuse praise for the personality of Mandela. A listening leader, whose aura and charisma was a unifying force but who placed the economy’s management in the hands of others. ‘While Mandela played a key role in the political drama of these years, he delegated economic issues to others’. Turok is awed and tackles the Mandela years from the sidelines.

The economy is central to the idea behind With My Head above the Parapet, and there is a robust effort to showcase how the historical idea of the ANC was about a radicalism that affected the people in deed, and how this ideal plummeted under Thabo Mbeki, under the influence of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other agencies, with the likes of Trevor Manuel, the Minister of Finance, and Maria Ramos being ‘too accommodating of the pressures’ from these economic bodies. The result was to focus on economic policies that promoted growth, privatisation, and a shrunken state. He further exemplifies this with the 1996 policy change, from the socially redistributive Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, which is more conservative and largely retrogressive to the plans of the ANC.

While Mandela, ‘who was an infrequent participant in Parliament’, unlike the intrusive Mbeki, is painted as the people’s man, whose aura alone was ‘adequate’ to bring people to work, Mbeki’s term though ‘fairly successful’ only achieved an insignificant relevance when placed side-by-side with the people’s needs, and hence was not revolutionary enough to tackle the problems on ground, although Mbeki went ahead to get 66% of the vote in 2004, the highest electoral mandate for the ANC.

Some of the failings of Mbeki’s government that Turok brings to light include not spending a R400 million surplus in 2006 on social welfare and infrastructure, and the inability to resolve an arms deal among several others.

This is the background for viewing the popularity with which the current president, Jacob Zuma, gained the highest office; the background which would give a herdboy growing up in Natal, with only a few years of elementary schooling, relevance in the ANC; the background, which combined with charisma and the flair for peacemaking, is something Mbeki lacks.

In mapping, what could be seen as the present genesis of economic downturn in South Africa, Turok ‘fingers’ the failing expertise on the economic front. For instance, he sees that the economic policy of GEAR diverted attention from spending on infrastructure and job creation, and fundamentally resulted in job loss between 1996 and 2000, and rather than promoting manufacturing and small-scale enterprises, its tariffs resulted in deindustrialisation.

Turok laments over the decline of intellectuals in the ANC parliamentary caucus. This according to him, affects the ‘quality of the discussions in caucus and in the calibre of its members’. This intellectual decline he blames on the role played by the ANC leadership, whom he believes ‘undermined’ the role of the parliamentary caucus once it began to elect delegates in consultation with the Chief Whip. The ‘decline in the calibre’ is also highlighted as the second symptom of the malaise.

In all, the larger sense that a reader gets from Turok’s accounts of his years as a participant-cum-observer of the ANC is that there is some deviance, something wrong in the government. The ANC is reneging on its promise to better the life of all; it is becoming more corrupt, and adapting less to democratic processes, and initiating even more confusion with its policies. In essence, more ‘malaise’ could erupt on the road ahead if the present condition is not treated – if one understands Turok.


Photograph: ‘ANC Luthuli House Johannesburg’ by Paul Saad


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Jumoke Verissimo is widely published in magazines and journals across continents. She has written two books of poetry, I Am Memory (2008) and The Birth of Illusion (2015).

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