Ben Turok: Pallo Jordan’s strength lies in his history

I find it very disconcerting to read comments in the press about Pallo Jordan in the past tense. 

The man has confessed to have claimed academic titles he was not entitled to and has offered appropriate resignations. He now needs time to sort out his future role in the liberation movement and indeed in our public life and that is completely understandable. I have not been in touch with him but have no doubt that in time he will explain himself and we must be patient for that. But that doesn’t make him an object of history.

And talking of history, that is precisely his strength. In the past few years, he has concentrated like no one else on examining the way African opposition expressed itself under white rule. He has written extensively on the emergence of forces of opposition to that rule in the late 19th century and has sought to balance the respective roles of traditional leaders, African farmers and intellectuals in order to correct some misconceptions. His purpose was to provide some background of resistance politics before the emergence of the ANC and after the crushing of African military power in the mid-19th century.

His research work also encompassed the subsequent period, after the formation of the ANC in 1912, when he continued to trace the differing social forces at work and the role of the outstanding personalities responsible for that event and their social origins and roles.

Indeed what distinguishes Pallo’s writings is his consistent referencing the role of individuals and groups to their social positions in society, never hesitating to use the categories of class and social strata. Although he always writes in the context of the ANC as a multi-class organisation, he has never fudged class issues. Nor has he hesitated to identify with the working class and the exploited in general.

He has not joined the Communist Party, preferring to remain somewhat independent, in so far as this is possible for a member of the ANC, and a senior member at that.

But Pallo is more than merely independent. He is also different in that he does his own thinking, working things out in his own way. And that makes him at times unpredictable. While his Marxist orientation is obvious, he is never dogmatic, and always open to rethinking a political problem. And this quality has sometimes made him unpopular with political leadership who prefer comrades who toe the line – or at least broadly conform to the general position adopted at a particular time.

I have known Pallo for some 30 years. In recent years, we have collaborated on a number of projects; for instance on political education when he was a member of the ANC’s parliamentary political education committee or when I sought contributions for New Agenda. In all such activities, one can never take Pallo for granted. You have to convince him as to why he should do something, and that has to be done thoroughly.

It is also well known that Pallo is both very proud and highly sensitive to criticism. Which is why I believe that the current comments in the media and elsewhere about his false claims must be extremely painful to him.  At times people are judgmental when they have no standing to do so.

The ANC and the country need his intellect and his consistent political integrity more than ever. I use the word “integrity” because it is well deserved. I have seen him stand up against prejudice and wrong positions at ANC conferences when there was a high risk that he would be in a minority of one. In one instance it was in defence of the freedom of the media, on another occasion it was against the imposition of religious positions which were not in accord with ANC traditions.

When I was charged with indiscipline by Luthuli House for walking out of the National Assembly over the information Bill, Pallo volunteered to defend me. He faced up to the official prosecuting me at many meetings and argued vehemently that proceeding with the charge would damage the reputation of the ANC not me. His persistence paid off and the charge was eventually dropped.

He has always espoused democratic practices when contrary tendencies have begun to appear. And who can argue that such tendencies are not to be found in our present environment ?

I believe that our country and our liberation movement is going through a particularly challenging time. There is too much uncertainty about economic policy – there are too many instances of poor governance, too many unsuitable people are appointed to top positions, and corruption seems to have become endemic.

Measured against these problems, the case against Pallo should be seen in that perspective and should be put aside.

Professor Ben Turok was formerly an ANC MP and  is now  the director of the Institute for African Alternatives, which publishes New Agenda, South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy.

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Ben Turo
Professor Ben Turok is the director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA), publisher of New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy. Turok is a former anti-apartheid activist, Treason Trialist, and a former ANC member of parliament.

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