Rick Turner is probably someone few people will have heard of. Yet this young lecturer’s work and his vision continues to echo down the years. The trade union movement, socialism that does not embrace Stalinism and even black consciousness owe a great deal to him. Here are two assessments of his place in South African society.

Rick Turner was murdered by agents of the apartheid state.


Source: Daily Maverick

From the real to the ideal state of the nation: Rick Turner and the enduring necessity of utopian thinking

 Rick Turner.Photo:Supplied

By Ben Roberts and Chris Desmond


17 Feb 2022  1

Fifty years ago in his book, ‘Eye of the Needle’, assassinated philosopher Rick Turner argued that those fighting the apartheid system must have the courage to define the utopia they wanted to see, so that they would know what they were aiming for. He warned that a failure to do so would lead to mistakes after apartheid and create opportunities for the corrupt and immoral to benefit from a lack of direction.

On the night of 8 January 1978, Rick Turner was shot through the window of his daughters’ bedroom in his Durban home. He fought for his life, but died in front of his children shortly after the shooting. To this day we do not know who the murderer was or why they did it.

What we know is that the state must have been involved, as Rick was a prominent academic and activist and under 24-hour surveillance by the security services. And we can guess at the reason – the apartheid state knew the power of ideas and was afraid of those who had ideas which galvanised and directed efforts against the regime. Rick Turner, like Steve Biko who was murdered the year before, had powerful ideas and as a consequence was feared and despised by the state.

This year marks 50 years since the publication of one of Turner’s most provocative works, and his only book publication, The Eye of the Needle: Towards Participatory Democracy in South Africa, published in 1972. At the time of writing, the apartheid state was dominant. It was hard for those fighting against it to see beyond the need to bring it down.

But Turner argued that they must look beyond its destruction and begin to imagine the state they wished to replace it with. Critically, he argued for the need to imagine what was wanted without constant reference to the constraints of the present. He argued that those fighting the system must have the courage to define the utopia they wanted to see, so that they would know what they were aiming for. He warned that a failure to do so would lead to mistakes after apartheid and create opportunities for the corrupt and immoral to benefit from a lack of direction.

We failed to meet his challenge and we are paying the price. But his challenge remains relevant and it is essential that we rise to it now.

Fifty years on, South Africa is beset with challenges. They may not be as great as those faced in the early 1970s, but they are similarly difficult to see past. Corruption and the consequential failure of state institutions, political infighting and the fanning of racial divisions and xenophobia dominate our headlines. It is understandable that we should be focused on how to address these challenges. But we would benefit from doing more; from looking past the current constraints and asking what kind of society we want to build. Developing a vision for ourselves can inspire action and motivate us in difficult times, something which is badly needed.

One only has to look at the prevailing public mood in the country and how it has changed over the past decade-and-a-half to gain a sense of the scale of disillusionment and discontent.

The Human Sciences Research Council’s South African Social Attitudes Survey shows that by early 2021, 70% felt the country was going in the wrong direction (49% in 2010), with only 32% satisfied with democracy (70% in 2004), 24% satisfied with the general economic situation (43% in 2007), and barely one-tenth satisfied with government’s job-creation initiatives and anti-corruption efforts. There has been a profound loss of confidence in political institutions, with trust in national government falling from 69% in 2004 to 33% in 2021, and from 65% to 32% in the case of Parliament.

We live in a time where the share believing that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government stands at only 39%, with 21% favouring authoritarian alternatives, and 34% saying it just does not matter anymore (the corresponding figures in 2005 were 65%, 10% and 16%).

The transition to democracy in the early to mid-1990s was accompanied by vigorous, and at times inspiring, political and public dialogue and debate about the appropriate social and economic policy framework needed to overcome historical injustices and produce a fairer, caring society as envisaged in the Freedom Charter and the country’s progressive Constitution. But it was a negotiated not a utopian vision, and the compromises continued after 1994. The ideological trade-offs of the time have been oft-lamented, especially in the shift from the foundational Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to the GEAR and ASGISA policy frameworks, and beyond.

More recently, against the backdrop of a declining economy and the persisting challenges posed by poverty, unemployment and inequality, there has been a growing chorus arguing for a social compact and vision to guide socioeconomic transformation in the country. The Covid-19 pandemic experience of the past two years adds to the urgency of such appeals. But it remains unclear where the vision will come from.

We need to ask how we undertake and promote Turner’s “utopian thinking” for our times. It needs to be discursive, participatory and democratic in character, allowing for diversity of opinion and perspective to be expressed. We can learn from past efforts, such as the unprecedented collection and distillation of public views to inform the Freedom Charter of 1955, which informed the liberation movement in the country over successive decades and generations.

Critically, any effort to promote utopian thinking should not become mired in the immediate economic and other concerns of the day. Instead, it needs to take the long view and identify the hallmarks of society that we can collectively agree upon and fight for. The questions of how we realise this vision, and how long it will ultimately take to achieve, must remain subsidiary concerns in this initial visioning process.

By constructing the vision of the good society, we will be able to routinely evaluate present conditions, make policy adjustments where required and experiment with new initiatives to maintain the developmental trajectory that will push us closer to the envisaged state of the nation. For instance, we should be able to agree on the importance of a social safety net. We can then debate the merits of the Basic Income Grant and how we will afford it.

As Turner himself observed in the concluding lines of “the present as history”, the postscript to Eye of the Needle, “even if successful, the rate of change achieved by such a strategy is likely to be slow, and a model of an ideal society must remain a relatively distant hope. But it does have a function, both as a critical tool for analysing existing social reality and as an ideal that can help to encourage South Africans to work toward a better future.”

Source: Daily Maverick

Philosopher-organiser: Rick Turner and the revival of the trade union movement in the early 1970s

 Philosopher, academic and anti-apartheid activist Rick Turner, who was assassinated in 1978. No one has ever been charged for his murder. (Picture Jann Turner)

By Halton Cheadle


21 Feb 2022  2

Rick Turner’s impact on my life and other students’ lives was profound. He was a philosopher, a political theorist, a teacher, an activist and a friend. He arrived in Durban in 1970. By 1978 when he was brutally assassinated in front of his two young daughters, he had left a legacy that included a scathing criticism of capitalism in his book, The Eye of the Needle, a workers’ college, and the South African Labour Bulletin.

However, his most enduring legacy may be his influence on a committed cadre of student activists who assisted in establishing and organising black workers into trade unions in Durban in the early 1970s. 

I will let others speak of his engagement with Steve Biko and the black consciousness movement, of his influence on the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) and of his deep philosophical inquiries into a Marxist epistemology, which still remain unfortunately unpublished. I want to speak on my experience of Turner as a teacher and then on his influence on white student activists organising workers and their role in those organisations. It is important though to first set a context of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The universities had been racialised by the apartheid state over a sustained period of time — so by the late 1960s, the University of Witwatersrand, which had admitted Nelson Mandela as a law student in the 1940s, was closed to black students. At the University of Natal — there were the two white campuses and a black campus (the medical school) — they were run entirely as if they were separate universities.

Nusas was the predominant student organisation in the English universities at the time. But in 1969, Steve Biko (from UND’s medical school) led the breakaway from Nusas and established the South African Student Organisation. This left Nusas with its predominantly white membership in a quandary as to its role and direction and this opened up a debate that might not have been opened given its smug pride in its multiracialism. It is in this context that a critique of white liberals emerged, and a more radical class-based analysis took place. Turner played a central role in that exploration.

The banning of the ANC and the PAC in 1960 and their move into exile meant their organisational and ideological absence on the campuses at the time — certainly at the University of Natal when I was there. It is no accident that quite simultaneously towards the end of the 1960s and early 1970s there was an independent exploration of the meaning of race and class in various campuses across the country. The exposure to different strands of thinking led to black consciousness on the one hand and brands of non-doctrinaire Marxism on the other. Though sometimes forgotten, it bears reminding that the exile movements were initially hostile to both those ideas and the organisations that those ideas spawned.

There is another part of the context that is important and one that is critical in Rick’s analysis in The Eye of the Needle of the possible sites of struggle. 

First, trade unions organising African workers were not illegal and although their leadership was frequently harassed, detained or banned, the organisations themselves were not banned. In other words, despite the authoritarian nature of the state, there was space for organisations to oppose it. There is an important characterisation of the apartheid state in The Eye of the Needle: It was authoritarian and oppressive, but it was not totalitarian. In other words, there was space for internal lawful opposition to occupy — often closed down but only to reopen. 

One such space was the one afforded by a liberal university and academic study and research. The political philosopher Michael Nupen and Turner put together political theory courses at bachelor’s and honours’ levels that involved a close engagement with political philosophy that included Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Lukacs, Sartre and Marcuse — even Stalin on the National Question.  That space in the universities became occupied by a generation of political scientists (Turner, Dan O’Meara, Sheldon Leader), historians (Charles van Onselen, Phil Bonner, Peter Delius), social scientists (Eddie Webster, Duncan Innes) and economists (Mike Morris, Dave Kaplan, Dudley Horner, Alec Erwin) at liberal universities in the 1970s and 1980s that openly explored class and race theories in their classes and their publications despite the apartheid state’s periodic banning of lecturers, students and books.

As Turner himself stated and Tony Morphet qualified in his introduction to The Eye of the Needle: “In the South African university environment good pedagogics is inevitably radical politics — though the corollary is not always true”.

This allows me to then turn to Turner as a teacher. He was no ordinary university lecturer. His lifestyle was so much on the surface, like that of his students. He lived in a communal arrangement. He let his red rush of hair grow long. He allowed unwashed dishes to accumulate in the sink and the surrounding counters. He had second-hand dilapidated furniture. Sometimes he held seminars in bed when he was sick. He had no palate to speak of — his staple was lentils and his liquor water. Whatever utopia he projected, it certainly wasn’t culinary

His teaching was text-based and Socratic — inspiring us and transforming our thinking by quietly and patiently questioning, probing, rephrasing badly answered questions (sometimes making one sound profounder than one had intended) and posing counterfactuals — all of which you can see and hear at work in The Eye of the Needle. I am not sure that he ever used the term hermeneutics, but that was his method and a method that he employed in his exegesis of the texts. 

I remember a public debate between an imam and Turner concerning the differences between Islam and socialism. The imam described the similarities (Moscow and Mecca, Marx and Mohammed, Das Kapital and the Koran etc) and the differences (theism v atheism). Turner (unlike us who were utterly contemptuous of the superficiality of the analysis) quietly responded that these similarities pointed to deeper similarities and, of course, differences. But the differences did not matter because they were matters of belief in the hereafter whereas the similarities dealt with life on Earth. He then engaged in a deeply humanistic exegesis of the text of the Koran to argue for a socialist society in just the hermeneutical way that he used the Christian Bible to do in The Eye of the Needle.

Let me now turn to his influence on the nascent organisation of black workers into trade unions in the early 1970s. There are four interlocking arguments that are central to his theory of change in The Eye of the Needle

The first argument is that there is space for lawful internal opposition (the survival of the black trade unions established in the 1970s and their and the UDF’s meteoric growth and presence in the 1980s is testimony to that fact). International isolation and the armed struggle were not the only forms of struggle — both of which were critically evaluated in The Eye of the Needle.

The second argument is that a primary site of internal opposition to the apartheid state was the organisation of black workers into trade unions. 

The third is that these organisations must be participatory and democratic in character. 

The fourth is that the opposition to the apartheid state must by its very nature be black-led — the role of white activists was to support not lead. 

That support took different forms — all inspired by Turner and involving Turner despite his banning order, which prevented him, among other restrictions, from lecturing, publishing, attending gatherings and trade union activities. The Institute of Industrial Education was established to serve as a school for trade unionists. The South African Labour Bulletin was published to provide information and stimulate critical analysis and debate on issues that confront workers. Historians were encouraged to recover the hidden history of workers. Economists and social scientists were mobilised to conduct research into poverty datum lines and minimum living wages to support wage negotiations. Advice offices were established to assist workers with individual complaints ranging from underpayments, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation to the pass laws. But the most critical form of involvement was the direct engagement of white activists in the organisation of black workers into trade unions. 

In the space of two years before the first round of bannings of those activists in 1974, trade unions organising black workers were established in the textile, metal, transport and chemical industries. 

The constitutions of those unions were constructed to realise Turner’s central arguments regarding participatory decision-making and worker leadership. Workers elected their shop stewards in the workplace. The shop stewards appointed a representative from their number to sit on the branch executive committee of the trade union. The members of the branch appointed a representative to sit on the executive committee of the union, which had the power to appoint and fire officials. It was inevitable that given the demographics of the South African workplace, these executive committees were black — not as a matter of ideology but as one of fact. 

Although at the beginning white activists were officials performing important leadership roles, their role was to be scaffolding — to fall away once the trade union was up and running. Although it was our intention to voluntarily move into support roles rather than leadership roles, the state did the job for us. Five of us were banned in 1974 only to be replaced by other white activists. 

But by the time that they were banned in 1976, the unions were firmly in the hands of their worker leadership. It should not come as a surprise then that during our banning orders some of us studied law by correspondence so that we could provide a new form of support to these trade unions, namely as labour lawyers. DM/MC

Halton Cheadle is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Cape Town.