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Reviewed by:
  • Nothing But the Truth
  • Zoë Molver (bio)
Ben Turok (2003) Nothing But the Truth. Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers

'It is February 2003. I am 75 years old. I live in a comfortable middle-class suburb' (2003:11). Ben Turok's autobiography, Nothing But the Truth, starts in the present and, over nine chapters from 'Rebel Son' to 'The 1990 Miracle and its Aftermath', covers one of the most significant periods of South Africa's evolution into a democracy. It is a remarkable story, told by the sole surviving member of the original underground leadership structure of the Communist Party (CP), that emphasises the 'need to look behind us' in order to answer the question: 'Can the ANC bring about the transition and transformation promised over all those years?' (2003:9).

The title, Nothing But the Truth, raises questions from the outset about the status of truth. The autobiographical narrative offers a subjective 'truth' rather than 'fact'. The Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez prefaces his recent autobiography, Living To Tell The Tale with the observation: 'Life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it'. Turok, in his preface, acknowledges the difficulties of the task he has set himself: 'What follows is a story. It is not a formal history and it is both selective and subjective. Much of what I have to say is subject to other interpretations, as memory plays tricks with us' (2003:7-8). At the same time, Turok is conscious that, as the only surviving voice of the CP underground, it is crucial that he not only 'record these thoughts but try to be as objective and accurate' (2003:135) as he can.

Compounding these difficulties of remembering and telling is the narrator's admission that, as an ANC activist, he has had to subordinate personal life and feelings to the collective (the shift from 'I' to 'we' and 'our' registers this stylistically) (2003:8). Writing about these experiences is difficult; not only [End Page 129] is this narrative revelatory (the autobiography is subtitled, Behind the ANC's Struggle Politics) and therefore potentially controversial, it is also self-revelatory.

The narrating 'I' is self-reflective about the act of remembering, of 'opening up on everything' (2003:11). 'This is a painful business and perhaps a mere exercise in self-justification, but it is no ego trip' (2003:7). Why is it important to narrate this personal story? The narrator addresses the issue of authority and authenticity, the 'right' to speak this story, directly: 'Much of what follows has not been told before. I am the sole survivor of some crucial events in our history'. It is told 'from the perspective of one engaged in the struggle, not only by arm's-length historians' or 'political scientists' (2003:7-8). The narrator claims a unique perspective, thereby validating the account —'to be at the centre of things, when history is being made, has a special kind of thrill which remains with you forever' (2003:98).

The narrative is given additional credence by the incorporation of a variety of documents, such as letters pertaining to Turok's expulsion from the Communist Party, and a number of annexures. These include 'Document 73', 'Document Mayibuye' and the unpublished [until now] memorandum that Turok wrote to the ANC leadership at its 1969 conference in Morogoro: 'What is Wrong? A discussion on the present situation in the South African liberation movement', as well as the reply from Joe Matthews, the conference secretary.

A theme running through Turok's narrative is the relationship between the committed individual and the collective, whether it be the ANC or the CP. He deeply admires comrades such as Moses Kotane and leaders like Tambo and Mandela. 'My experience of the Treason Trial was ... the significance of individual talent and individual blemishes and weaknesses. I say this because it is the tradition in the ANC to call up the collective as the source of all wisdom and authority in decision-making. Yet when I look back on the whole period that I am describing, I cannot but be struck by the importance...


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pp. 129-133
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