Interview to IOL News: SA a tinderbox waiting to burn

Prof. Turok speaks to Zenzile Khoisan. The full text is reprinted below. 

Johannesburg – Legendary academic and parliamentarian Professor Ben Turok believes South Africa is in crisis and urgent interventions are required to prevent the fallout in a country that’s “tinder waiting to burn”.

On the saga surrounding the R246-million upgrade of President Jacob Zuma’s private residence, he says there are many questions that the government has to answer.

“We don’t know what happened in terms of the overspending on security, and now the Public Works Minister is telling us the money was misspent, but that does not give us the answers that we need.

“The other issue was that President Zuma didn’t answer questions about Nkandla, which is a problem, because these questions will come back every time until a satisfactory answer is given.”

The veteran politician, who last year called it quits after two decades in the National Assembly, told The Sunday Independent that he’s “temperamentally unable to retire”.

He’s travelled widely and “even been on a cruise in the Mediterranean” since leaving official politics, but is still hard at work seeking solutions to Africa’s many problems. He’s particularly concerned about the current state of instability in South Africa, and says recent events in Parliament are very disconcerting.

“All the signs are there that we’re a country in crisis. I was in the gallery on Wednesday (March 12) when President Zuma answered questions. As I was watching from the gallery, it was very depressing, because the Speaker was unable to handle proceedings.”

He humorously referred to how he and his family had to evacuate their home when it nearly burned down last week in the raging fire that swept through the southern Cape Peninsula last week.

Turok said he’s thinking of taking up the matter of his security with the minister. “I thought I should write to him and ask him to build me a ‘fire pool’, to keep me safe from fire,” he said.

Looking back at his time in Parliament, he says the last few years have been the most challenging for the country. “Over the last 15 years we’ve had controversies, such as the whole debacle around Aids under President Mbeki, but in the last five we’ve experienced instability.

“We have to consider what we are dealing with when the four top executives of Eskom have been suspended at a time when we have serious problems with our energy supply.

“We’ve had the deputy of the SA Revenue Service suspended, and the top person in our major crime-fighting agency, the Hawks, has been suspended. This is an unprecedented crisis,” the retired MP stresses.

He said the breakdown in decorum at Parliament was indicative of broader problems, and that, if parliamentarians were not careful, their conduct could very well be emulated by people on the ground.

“South Africa is a tinderbox waiting to burn, and if Parliament degenerates into fisticuffs, people on the ground may well take their cue and follow their example.”

He said that when he was at Parliament last week he detected that “the ANC benches were uneasy and uncomfortable” during the time the President was answering questions.

He said it was unfair that Parliament is viewed as a place that is not working, because very serious work is being done, in a collegial way, especially in the portfolio committees, where legislation is being crafted, reports are drawn up and oversight is conducted.

“It’s in the plenary where the circus starts, where people perform for the public and the press. What happened on Wednesday is that the president had written answers for the questions, but Julius Malema told him that they want to interrogate him personally.

“That’s what it’s really about, that the executive is accountable to Parliament; personally, so what seems like chaos is a direct confrontation.”

Turok, who currently serves as a director of the Institute for African Alternatives which publishes a think tank journal, The New Agenda, said he was nevertheless inspired by many strong economic development initiatives. “Africa is growing at between 5 and 6 percent and the continent now has a new mood, where many in the diaspora are now returning with skills and expertise with which to participate.

“The era of politics in Africa has passed, and economics is what now matters.” These developments, said Turok, would ensure that he would not step gently into the sunset.

“I am going into the fire, where it is warm,” he said with a smile.

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