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Remembering to think critically: Rick Turner 40 years on

Forty years ago, in the early hours of January 8th 1978, a 36-year old political philosopher was shot dead in his Durban home by ‘person or persons unknown’. Richard Turner (known to students, colleagues and friends as Rick) was coming to the end of a five year banning order imposed on him for his anti-apartheid political activities. This fact, the fact that he was shot with a 9mm bullet identical to those used by the South African police, and the fact that then Minister of Police Jimmy Kruger had once called Turner ‘the most dangerous man in South Africa’, suggests, if not who, but why he was killed.

But why a philosopher? And why reflect on him today? A look, however briefly, at his life and work answers the first question. A look at his thought, I suggest, starts to answer the second.

A brief, radical life

Rick Turner was born on September 25th, 1941 grew up in Stellenbosch, on a farm, went to St George’s Grammar School in Cape Town and then to the University of Cape Town. Abandoning engineering, he studied philosophy under Professor Martin Versfeld, an inspiring and eclectic scholar whose interests ranged from Aquinas (Versfeld was a Catholic convert) to Existentialism. On graduating with an honours degree and marrying his girlfriend Barbara Hubbard, Turner proceeded to Paris for his doctorate.

No doubt influenced by his mentor, he rejected the conventional English South African graduate trajectories – Britain or the United States – and chose France to specialise in Sartre and Existentialism. Paris in the 1960s shifted his politics from vague liberalism to libertarian New Left Marxism, incorporating existential ideas of freedom and responsibility. His background and philosophical choices distanced him – from English-speaking South African academia (who had little interest then in Continental philosophy), from most Afrikaans scholars (wary of his political radicalism) and from anti-apartheid activists, whose politics followed a mix of liberalism and Leninism.

Having completed his PhD in 1966, Turner and his family returned to South Africa with limited job prospects. He managed his parents’ farm for a while, did sessional teaching at the university and got involved with the Oop Gesprek [open dialogue] groups of progressive political philosopher Johan Degenaar. Degenaar’s group frequently met at St Nicholas Priory, the seminary of the Dominican Order, in Stellenbosch. Though by now an atheist, Turner seems to have enjoyed the free discussions that combined Afrikaans scholars (many of them uneasily Dutch Reformed) and increasingly radical Catholic friars.

At this point Turner got to know the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), an increasingly radicalised movement of mainly white university students. He gave a ‘teach-in’ at UCT in 1968 during student occupations of the university’s administration building, precipitated by the university’s kowtowing to state demands not to give a black professor (Archie Mafeje) a full-time post. For the rest of his life until his banning in 1973 (and – truth be told – afterwards) Turner became a mentor to NUSAS as it sought a newer, more radical direction in the 1970s. He would also establish contact with its black counterpart, the South African Students Organisation (SASO), which broke away from NUSAS after 1968.

After the break-up of his marriage and a brief sojourn at Rhodes University, Turner moved to Durban in 1970 to teach in the Political Science depart at the then University of Natal until his banning in 1973. He was, by all accounts, prominent and popular, if highly controversial. He drew on the Socratic method in teaching (developing an argument by dialoguing with his students) and introduced to South Africa the ideas of counterculture gurus Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, as well as the thought of the New Left. He deepened his involvement with NUSAS and apparently built up an intellectual rapport with Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. These conversations usually occurred deep into the night on the back verandah of his house in Durban.

The fruits of these involvements was his promotion of black trade union organisations through training projects run by a mixture of unionists, ex-NUSAS students and folk from the Christian left. These movements arose from a spontaneous resurgence of strikes in Durban in 1973, and would ultimately regenerate black trade union federations that played a decisive role in the 1980s and early 1990s. One of Turner’s achievements was helping to create the South African Labour Bulletin, a magazine both ‘academic’ and popular for unionists and scholars alike.

He also married Foszia Fisher according to Muslim rites – for which he formally converted to Islam. She was active in union education and their marriage was in violation of the law prohibiting racially-mixed marriage. Turner was by conviction an atheist, though not unsympathetic to progressive forms of religion. This brought him into the Muslim activist community, centred on such notables as the late Professor Fatima Meer. He also made links with Christian opposition groups like the Christian Institute and its Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society (Spro-cas) and figures like former Liberal Party leader Alan Paton and Durban’s Catholic archbishop, Denis Hurley.

It was out of dissatisfaction with the politically liberal and capitalist direction of some of the Spro-cas commissions he served on that Turner wrote a short book, The Eye of the Needle (1972). The only book he wrote, it was a call to participatory democratic socialism as an alternative to the status quo. Echoing and epitomising the radical culture of Sixties – New Left egalitarian socialism, grounded in democracy and the existential values of freedom and responsibility – it is in hindsight a summa or his thought and activities. Arguably as much a work of early South African liberation theology as political philosophy, it suggested at base a whole new approach to politics rooted in what he unashamedly called ‘utopian thinking’. Though it would be ‘banned’ after his 1973 banning order, it remained in many ways a manifesto for resistance outside the African National Congress, Pan Africanist, Leninist and Black Consciousness traditions.

Given his political connections that spanned (and in some ways, I would suggest, linked) the 1970s South African internal opposition – black and white, students and workers, liberals and left, and the religious community – it was perhaps inevitable that the state would impose a banning order on him, as it had done on Biko and the Black Consciousness movement, NUSAS activists and trade unionists.

And, indeed, that he – like Biko, murdered in police detention on September 12th 1977, a few months before him – never saw the end of his banning order.

The case for a radical ‘afterlife’

I think one can thus make a ‘case’ for why a philosopher like Rick Turner was murdered. Tyranny hates ideas, fears critical thinking. And this is why we should we remember Rick Turner today. Ideas. Critical thinking.

Now, I am not saying that we can simply take Turner’s thought and apply it unthinkingly. Though I believe we need to read him – and thankfully The Eye of the Needle has recently been republished, together with a lyrical (if uneven) biography of Turner by William Kenniston and a recent issue of the political philosophy journal Theoria examining his legacy – we need to read him as he’d want us to: critically.

Let us start by looking at the central theme of his thought: Socialism. Turner’s vision was rooted in a libertarian socialism that many might see as closer to classical anarchism than Marxism. At the time he was writing, there was a belief by some that economy could be managed socially by workers. There were even places where, to some (perhaps over-hopeful) outsiders at least, an approximation of this was happening: Yugoslavia and to some extent Cuba. Today, Yugoslavia is no more and Cuba is a mess. (And, depending on who you speak to and how you read their situations, both countries were or are a lot less democratic than most of us would like them to be).

Would Turner maintain his position on socialism now? It is foolish to speculate too far, but I think he would be appalled by the almost-symbiotic relationship between greed and capitalism today. He would certainly at very least be committed to social democracy. Interestingly, found in his house after his murder was an unread copy of John Rawls’ classic text A Theory of Justice. Rawls rejected philosophically the possibility of absolute equality, but insisted on the morality (and perhaps even the practicality) of social democratic mechanisms (e.g. progressive taxation) to make democratic society less unequal. Had he lived longer, what would Turner have made of Rawls? Perhaps we need to read Turner with Rawls – New Left idealism with Kantian realism – to see what we can make of it.

As a socialist and democrat, Turner also relies heavily on what he terms utopian thinking. This was clearly his way of challenging his Spro-cas friends to think more daringly than they were – ever-widening qualified franchises or race-based federalism in politics, capitalism paired perhaps with more equal access to education, capital and opportunity in economics. He was I think too good a philosopher and too practical a thinker to embrace classical utopianism. The latter, in various forms secular or religious, proposes an end to history, human perfectibility and perfect societies, sometimes with a savage intolerance for dissent.

Turner’s libertarian side would never, I think, embrace such an ultimately tyrannical vision. I think we need to read his use of utopia as a rhetorical call to think outside the box, an exercise of political imagination that impels us to still greater justice. In his practical activism Turner clearly displayed great amounts of realism: once he counselled students to consider door to door campaigning on social issues in white neighbourhoods, thereby winning over more potential supporters, before engaging in possibly short-sighted – albeit politically sexy – protests.  Likewise (having been admonished by Biko for doing this earlier in his career) he warned against white activists trying to move too much into the political spheres of the Black Consciousness movements. As with the protest example, he saw the most practical role for white activists in ‘evangelising’ and hopefully radicalising their own communities.

Similarly, he opposed overemphasis on political activism by trade unions over ‘bread and butter’ economic issues (and ultimately lost the debate). While not for a moment doubting the political potential of organised labour for political liberation, he saw – controversially, and anticipating a debate that continued and continues to animate unions – that a case could and should be made for meeting immediate needs, ameliorating immediate and local social conditions.

Whether we are talking about present-day questions about the extent of white political engagement, debates generated by the issue of free university education, or the dilemmas generated by promoting economic growth or greater social welfare, the questions Turner raised remain with us. The question as to where Turner would stand is moot, speculation. What seems clear to me is that he would be asking them – and taking a stand.

Should we not consider drawing on his thinking to see whether we are ourselves thinking critically about them? At the very least Turner’s thought might help us see that while we must address the critical issues facing our democracy – indeed democracy globally – we cannot do this without working through complex questions and perhaps proposing and implementing ‘solutions’ that are at best provisional, works in progress.


In a society and (global) culture where history is erased or manipulated, the need to remember our heroes is essential. To paraphrase Milan Kundera, ours is, was, and should always be a struggle of memory, specifically the memory of freedom that draws us to strive for greater freedom, against forgetting.

From what I’ve said I think it is clear that Rick Turner’s legacy and why we need to remember him goes far beyond nostalgia, beyond romanticising his memory or exercising a little bit of historical ‘affirmative action’ – recalling a hero of the struggle for democracy who has largely been forgotten. Rick Turner’s murderer or murderers have never been brought to book. Depressing as this is, it would be even worse if his life and work, particularly his insistence on critical thinking, were forgotten. Ultimately, if this legacy is preserved we can say the shade of Jimmy Kruger and to the assassins: “You failed!”

And to the new crop of scoundrels, be they populist presidents, disgusting dictators, corrupt captains of industry, politicians on the take or their false-fact manufacturing publicists: “Pasop!” SA. 

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.