An Anti-Apartheid Class Revisited

Billy Keniston

The Eye of the Needle:
Towards Participatory Democracy in South Africa
By Rick Turner
Seagull Books edition 2015, distributed by University of Chicago Press,
266 pages, $21 cloth.

“South Africa, everyone agrees, is a profoundly unequal society.

It is marked by inequality of power, of wealth, of access to the means for acquiring power and/or wealth, of education and of status.

This much is agreed upon…”(1)

“Merely removing the apartheid brakes on mobility and ending racial discrimination will not fundamentally alter the position of the black people of South Africa…

A fundamental redistribution of wealth will require, first, a massive and rapid redistribution of resources to remedy the social disadvantages of the blacks: large-scale investment in schooling, housing, and public health schemes…

In a just society whites cannot hope to retain their present standard of living.”(2)

— Rick Turner, The Eye of the Needle, 1972

SOUTH AFRICA UNDER apartheid may exemplify a uniquely unjust society, but injustice in society is not unique.

In 1972, writing at the height of apartheid, Rick Turner, a white professor at a whites-only university, wrote a provocatively utopian book, The Eye of the Needle: Towards Participatory Democracy in South Africa. Turner acknowledged that, in any given society, “the present nearly always appears to be fairly permanent.” (7)

Living within an arrogant and brutal regime, such as apartheid South Africa, or the present American empire, surely makes the weight of this truth feel heavier. Looking at South Africa from the outside, and with hindsight, the end of apartheid may seem to have been a foregone conclusion. Yet for Turner’s generation, it was in no way obvious that any of them would live to see the end of the regime.

In fact, Turner himself only survived five years after The Eye of the Needle, as he was assassinated in his home on the 8th of January, 1978, as a result of his socialist and nonracial politics.(3) Nonetheless Turner insisted — in both his writing and his life choices — on the “impracticality of realism,” and “the necessity of utopian thinking.”(4)

The Eye of the Needle was directed towards white South Africans, with the hope of shaking them out of the passivity, paternalism and paucity of imagination that tended to dominate the white opposition to apartheid at the time.

In the midst of severe repression and as beneficiaries of a tremendous amount of privilege, many whites advocated for reasonable, gradual reforms.(5) Turner described this as the kind of “morality” that allows one to exist within a given system, such as “in war, kill with bullets, but not with poison gas.”

For Turner, white South Africans were imprisoned within a suffocating social structure, of their own design. “The bulk of the whites are responsible victims who exercise coercive power to keep the structure in existence. But to forget that they are also victims would be to accept their own value system, to accept that to be like a white South African — rich, greedy and frightened of one’s fellows — is the ideal way for humans to be.” (13)

Urging white people to confront the inevitable dead-end of a system of rampant privilege, Turner was hopeful that white people could begin to take on roles in the struggle for a nonracial and egalitarian society. Refusing to settle for a tepid tweaking of the reigning order, he pushed for a fundamental rethinking of the “human model” that we live within.

Understanding capitalism to be a system that forces all human relations to be governed by the demands of property and wealth, Turner advocated for a human model that values “people over things.” Turner’s vision of a “participatory democracy” was of a radically decentralized socialist economy, which would place power in the hands of workers’ councils at all levels of society.

Of course, this vision runs directly counter to any of the many strands of mechanistic Marxism, that insist on a “Vanguard Party” liberating the working class. Turner placed his hope in the “educative function of participation,” whereby oppressed people could steadily develop the capacity to unlearn their inferiority complexes and abolish hierarchy, through the act of controlling their workplaces.

A Provocative and Timely Text

The Eye of the Needle is provocative and utopian on a number of levels. The book was one of the most daring and forward thinking contributions within relatively “quiet” years in South Africa.

Despite the fact that it became illegal to own or to quote it within a year of publication, The Eye of the Needle nonetheless motivated a small handful of white people to adopt a more radical politics, both in terms of the Black Consciousness Movement, and also within the emerging trade union movement.

The book was republished twice, once in the United States and again in South Africa, in the aftermath of Turner’s assassination. Still, for three decades the book has remained largely in obscurity, of relevance only to a marginal group of white leftists.

Given this history, what is the significance of Seagull Books’ recent republication of The Eye of the Needle? How can Turner’s radical thought be taken as a contribution to contemporary political problems?

In the years since Turner’s death, South Africa has gone through wave after wave of changes, from the mass “un-governability” of the 1980s through to the negotiated transition in the early 1990s, the triumphant myth-making of the truth and reconciliation process, followed by a saddening and horrific decline of the moral core of the liberation struggle.

The one-time “vanguard” party, the African National Congress, has become a hollowed-out shell of its former self, riddled with corruption, overseeing the massacre of striking miners, and sending apartheid-era armored vehicles into the townships in order to quell the anger of the majority of the population that is — still — often deprived of decent sanitation, housing, education, and employment.

As much as South Africans feel genuinely shocked and dismayed by these developments, all of this was — in its broadest strokes — anticipated by Turner within The Eye of the Needle. Therefore, rereading the text now serves as a sort of blueprint for “what might have been.”

In recent years South Africa has seen a resurgence of militant upheaval, in response to the declining economy and the growing disillusionment with the ANC. This fertile volatility has a number of components, many of them inspiring, others horrifying and ominous.

Much of the rhetoric of the new militants appears to echo the revolutionary language of Turner’s generation. The so-called “born free” generation of young South Africans speak passionately of redistributing land and wealth, tearing down the legacies of colonialism and white supremacy, and building space for black consciousness and solidarity, towards a socialist future.

But wound up in all of this is the new Economic Freedom Front party, headed by the neo-fascist Julius Malema, who is self-consciously using his charisma to steer black anger in the direction of Robert Mugabe’s miserable little fiefdom to the north.(6)

As the EFF steadily gains momentum, the crudest forms of nationalism are given more and more room within the public discourse, threatening to give rise to a mass campaign to violently rid the country of all white people (and after them, logically, will follow the Colored community, the Indian community, and all of the immigrants, refugees and long-time residents of South Africa who hail from the rest of Africa).

How does one use a book like The Eye of the Needle in order to grasp “the present as history”(7) in a political climate such as this? Many might read Turner as fuel for the growing conflagration that is literally sweeping South Africa right now,(8) as further confirmation that much more should have been done, in a much more radical direction, and much sooner.

But The Eye of the Needle is not simply a bull-horn calling for “freedom now.” At a much more profound — and subtle — level, Rick Turner was calling for thinking as a fundamental component of any attempt to radically transform society.

Back in 1968, when a student sit-in at the University of Cape Town was accused of rioting (which, unlike the recent student protests, they were most certainly not doing) Turner wrote that “white South African students ought to try a little thinking. For thinking, provided that it is done honestly, and provided that one does something with their thoughts, is far more revolutionary than mere rioting.”

Ethical Commitment

For Turner, radical social change demanded a serious ethical and intellectual commitment. However, in the years after Turner’s death, as the struggle escalated under the leadership of the Communist Party, the ANC and the armed struggle, Turner’s emphasis on a “theoretical attitude”(9) was understood as a luxury, or simply a barrier to action and was cast aside.

Tony Morphet, a dear friend of Turner’s, writing in 1991, described this shift in the ethos and priorities of radical politics as a process whereby “South African history gained its own teleology. The freedom of black South Africans from white rule was conflated with the classless utopia…The theoretical attitude is exiled. ‘Desks’ speak. Lines are given. Intellectual borders are patrolled. Thought is put under a state of emergency. The spectre of totalitarianism begins to show itself.” (Afterword to the 2015 edition, 216, 218)

Sadly, when the legacy of “the struggle” is called on as inspiration or insight for young militants, it is far more often the posturing and dogmatism of a clandestine army that captures people’s attention, rather than the slow, open-ended process of creating a new “human model” that Turner envisioned. Reviving The Eye of the Needle in this moment, then, might provide some small brake on the shrieking momentum of fire that looms on the horizon in South Africa.


  1. The Eye of the Needle, 29.
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  2. Ibid., 100.
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  3. In South Africa, the term “nonracialism” is used much more often than the “anti-racism” of the United States. Ideally at least, the distinction is that in South Africa the emphasis is not only on opposing and ending “racism,” but rather on abolishing race as a category of difference, privilege and power.
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  4. These are the titles of the first and last chapter of The Eye of the Needle.
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  5. It is worth noting that the main opposition political party did not believe in the universal franchise, and openly advocated income and education qualifications for black voters.
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  6. The extreme economic collapse in Zimbabwe in 2008 caused tremendous hardships including gripping poverty, hunger, and disease and at least one million Zimbabweans have crossed the border into South Africa since then. Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country since independence in 1980, is now widely regarded as a despot, and still refuses to step down, even though he is in his nineties.
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  7. “In order to theorize about society, perhaps the first step (psychologically) we have to take is to grasp the present as history.” (7)
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  8. Students and workers protesting across the country have caused over $30 million in damages, in the past year alone. Meanwhile, the recent local election campaign has regularly spilled over to assassinations and arson attacks of various kinds.
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  9. “Theory itself is not difficult. What is often difficult is to shift one’s self into a theoretical attitude, that is, to see that things in one’s experience cannot be taken for granted.” (7)
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November-December 2016, ATC 185