South Africa: The Radical Thought of Rick Turner

Alex Lichtenstein

Choosing to be Free:
A Life Story of Rick Turner
By Billy Keniston
Justseeds, 2015, 220 pages, $20 paper,

IF APARTHEID SOUTH Africa had its May 1968 or its Prague Spring, the moment came in January and February 1973, with the mass strikes that rocked the Indian Ocean port city of Durban and the surrounding province of Natal.

Marking an unusual confluence of Black Consciousness, white student radicalism and spontaneous shop-floor action by African workers, this “Durban Moment” (as it came to be called) helped make the industrial working-class a central player in the challenge to apartheid. And if the Durban Moment threw up a representative intellectual figure akin to Herbert Marcuse, Guy Debord or Vaclav Havel, that person was Richard (Rick) Turner, a young professor of politics at the University of Natal.

Although “banned” by the South African government in February 1973, Turner had a profound influence on a generation of anti-apartheid activists. More than 40 years later, at a moment of ferment engendered by post-apartheid disillusionment with the sclerotic politics of the African National Congress, his thought and legacy seem well worth revisiting.

Billy Keniston’s Choosing to be Free: The Life Story of Rick Turner appears in both a South African and an American edition, the former published by Jacana Books in 2013, the latter a year later by Justseeds, a small anarchist press and artists’ cooperative based in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. The book tells the story of the short life of Turner, a radical existentialist philosopher and anti-apartheid activist who was assassinated in 1978 at the age of 36.

If you have a choice, get hold of the U.S. imprint. Although the text is identical, Justseeds has laid out Keniston’s collection of images, verbatim interview excerpts, documents (including those secretly collected by the security police) and original prose in a hybrid fashion far more in tune with the biography’s animating ideas. (Appropriately, if perhaps not deliberately, the American version is subtitled A Life Story of Rick Turner, not The life story).

Keniston himself remarks that Choosing to be Free is less a biographical “rational, linear ordering” of his subject’s life than “a collage, a scrapbook” that brings together various elements from Turner’s world, including the memories of those who knew him best as a father, a husband, a friend or a political comrade. Keniston writes that he “tried to develop a structure for the book that gives the stories gleaned from these conversations as prominent a place in the narrative as possible,” a goal he largely achieves. The anarchist publisher seems to have recognized this multiplicity of voices as a “fundamental concept” behind the book much more than Jacana.

The U.S. text also has an informative foreword by anarchist artist and Justseeds founder Josh MacPhee, who notes that while anarchist publishers love to produce books about the Spanish Civil War, they have not published nearly enough on South Africa, a racist, settler society with a great deal in common with the United States.

MacPhee explains why contemporary American radicals should want to learn about an obscure white South African Marxist existentialist who was murdered at the behest of the apartheid regime over a decade before the South African freedom movement triumphed.

Retrieving Turner’s Thought

Though much revered today as a struggle hero in South Africa (there is a major thoroughfare in Durban that bears his name), Turner remains a fleeting, protean figure, and it is not always easy to reconstruct the development of his thought (not least because after 1973 the apartheid government would not allow him to publish anything openly, or even be quoted).

In Paris, as a graduate student at the Sorbonne in the mid-1960s, he “met” Sartre in the process of writing a thesis on the great existentialist’s work, but how much this encounter truly influenced Turner is open to doubt.

Although Keniston does not say so, perhaps studying in Paris, as opposed to London or Oxford, allowed Turner to keep his distance from the gravitational pull of the South African Communist Party and its ANC comrades in exile, permitting him to develop his independent, anti-authoritarian and non-sectarian radicalism, neither communist nor Trotskyist in orientation.

Upon his return to Cape Town in 1966, Turner himself served as a kind of Sartrean magnet and gadfly for local university students and assorted bohemian radicals beginning to feel the refreshing — if still faint — distant breeze of the New Left from other shores. Yet in the closed intellectual environment of apartheid South Africa the actual sources of these new winds can be difficult to detect.

Comrades’ memories and secret police reports, if they can be trusted, hint that Turner paid attention to events back in Paris in May 1968, to the Prague Spring, to the Cultural Revolution in China, to Rudi Dutschke, to Ivan Illich and to Che Guevara, among others.

Lecturing on Marcuse, Turner was reported as saying that “whilst a revolution cannot succeed without direct worker participation, nevertheless student revolt can act as a vital detonator.” As one University of Natal colleague recalled shortly after the South African government banned Turner in 1973, “because he studied in Paris at a time when explosive things were happening in the French student world, he was himself excited and made impatient by them.”

Another friend notes in retrospect, Turner was “absolutely the key to opening [students] up to new ideas and news from abroad.” A subsequent (but alas, undated) speech of Turner’s quoted by Keniston certainly smacks of New Left thinking on the nature of the university and its ethical place in making a new social order. Students, Turner proclaimed,

“don’t want universities to train them to be technicians for servicing the present social machine. They want universities to be involved in the creative task of evaluating the present social machine, of exploring different ways of organizing society….All they want…is to be part of a society which actually looks for questions and answers, a society which isn’t smug, whether its smugness be that of the old Czech Stalinist bureaucracy, the American influence-peddling party machine, or the white South African oligarchy.”

There is no way to know for sure whether Turner knew at this stage of the Port Huron Statement or of Mario Savio’s Free Speech Movement oratory, but it surely reads that way.

As Keniston notes, while personally uninterested in the counterculture’s use of mind-altering substances, Turner enthusiastically embraced its ideas about seeking out new forms of living and loving.

In the latter case, this meant directly abrogating South Africa’s racial laws when he fell in love with and married a “coloured” woman, Foszia Fisher, and thus crossed the color line in his most intimate personal relationship as well as his thinking.

Ally of Black Consciousness

Turner’s most profound influence on the trajectory of the South African left came after he took up a teaching post at the University of Natal in Durban in 1970. Given that he only was able to operate openly as a radical in Durban for three years before the apartheid state served him with a five-year banning order, the range of his contacts and the depth of his impact in the surrounding community is striking.

Turner’s grasp of existentialist humanism made him particularly receptive to the eruption of South Africa’s local strain of Black Power, that is, “Black Consciousness.” Articulated best by Steve Biko, BC in Keniston’s words insisted that “no genuine change in South Africa would be possible without a strong and assertive black movement,” an outlook that “forced white student activists to reconsider their role in the process of social change.”

Many white liberals found such a program profoundly threatening, but Turner immediately saw its import as an “invitation [to whites] not a threat.”

Much like Biko, whom he befriended, Turner regarded white liberals as “whites first, liberals second.” Notwithstanding the critical gaze they directed at apartheid, even the most liberal whites could not imagine a transformed South Africa without their basic privileges as whites left intact.

While Turner agreed with Biko and BC that social change from below would have to be initiated by blacks, he still saw a very important role to play for whites — namely, that they would have to address the limits of their own white consciousness as an obstacle to social transformation.  Here too, perhaps his lack of leftist party “credentials” made him less arrogant in his interaction with Biko and BC organizers.

Somewhat paradoxically, however, in his interactions with his students Turner helped push them towards a class analysis of South African society. As his colleague Andrew Duminy put it, “through Sartre he approached Marx and, like them, he became convinced that capitalism is by its very nature exploitative and therefore unjust.”

The Durban Upheaval

Only months before Turner’s banning order — and no doubt helping to precipitate it — a rash of mass strikes broke out amongst Black workers in Durban’s industrial areas. The “Durban Strikes” of 1973, though too often subordinated in the anti-apartheid narrative to the Soweto uprising of 1976, drew a small cohort of young white radicals into solidarity with striking Black workers.

Together they helped build embryonic trade unions that less than a decade later would emerge as a strong and vibrant base of working-class anti-apartheid struggle. In Durban, nearly all these white activists had been students of Turner’s and continued to consult with him as they threw themselves into trade union activism and solidarity actions with workers.

Several of them are interviewed in Keniston’s book, and show their appreciation for Turner, even when they came to disagree with him. Turner, his wife Foszia, and several of these students founded the Institute of Industrial Education (IIE), which published the first (and still the only) comprehensive study of the strikes in 1974, inaugurated the South African Labour Bulletin, and became a vibrant center for workers’ education in the Durban area, modeled partially after Ruskin College in Britain.

As historian Dan O’Meara observed when interviewed by Keniston, “Rick offered us this idea that it is only by working with black workers that whites can effect change” in the apartheid society of which they were obvious beneficiaries. Such activism, O’Meara pointed out, led as well to personal transformation, as privileged young whites were exposed for the first time to how the mass of ordinary Black South Africans lived.

Unfortunately, Keniston offers a rather uncharitable reading of the IIE’s study of the labor upheaval, The Durban Strikes, which he regards as too dismissive of the power of unregulated wildcat strikes driven by working-class self-activity in favor of an embrace of more regularized industrial conflict mediated by trade unions.

While it is true that the pamphlet appears to advocate “orderly trade unionism” as the antidote to mass spontaneous shopfloor action, this can be understood tactically rather than philosophically. In other words, Turner and the team that assembled The Durban Strikes had no interest in, as Keniston puts it, informing “the rulers of [the] economic system how they can more rationally or peacefully exploit and oppress the population.”

Rather, they hoped that an independent trade union would serve as a potential weapon in the hands of the Black working class, and wanted to wrest from employers and the state a space within which workers could build their autonomous organizations democratically.

As the pamphlet noted, “the trade union is the means by which workers can combine to exercise some power over their destinies.” Keniston’s usually acute vision here overlooks what labor sociologist and one-time IIE stalwart Eddie Webster has called Turner’s “combination of a radical vision with a strategy of reform.”

Quoting O’Meara’s retrospective insistence that a “kind of gutter Marxism…emerged in South Africa after 1973,” Keniston regards Turner’s more “utopian radicalism” as being eventually overshadowed by the re-emergence of a more traditionalist vanguardism, not to say Leninism,  within the trade union movement.

But here too I think he doesn’t give Turner’s acolytes enough credit. I would argue that a far more flexible, open-ended, and non-sectarian democratic commitment to workers’ self-emancipation persisted within the unions for at least a decade beyond the 1973 strikes.

Brief Life, Lasting Legacy

Turner, however, faced with banning and then assassinated in 1978, could not be a full participant in these developments, even if he had been one of their sparkplugs.

To be “banned” in apartheid South Africa was to be converted by the state into a non-person, making it difficult if not impossible to attend public meetings, to meet with more than one other person at a time, and to engage in any sort of intellectual or cultural activity, and of course to teach.

Short of imprisonment and torture, it is hard to imagine a more excruciating — one is tempted to say Sartrean — existence for someone like Turner, who thrived on just these sort of unfettered human interactions. Nevertheless, as Keniston points out, Turner was “remarkably prolific during his banning years,” even if much of this activity of necessity remained surreptitious.

In many cases, Fisher effectively acted as his amanuensis. Most importantly, he played a significant — if largely invisible — role in drafting a series of workbooks for the workers’ education program pioneered by the IIE. Keniston devotes an entire chapter to the struggle to define the main goals of this fractious workers’ education and aid society.

Reflecting broader tensions on the left, disagreements within the IIE pitted those who saw it as a broad-based workers’ education cooperative, one designed to (in the words of Foszia Fisher) “enable people to be free participants and functioning members of society at every level,” against young radicals who felt the IIE should be oriented to training a cadre of effective shop stewards who could build the new trade unions on the shop floor.

Ultimately, this latter cohort won the fight to define the IIE’s primary mission. According to his close friend, Tony Morphet, Turner was closer to the former approach, as he ultimately “wanted to reach working people and talk to them about themselves” rather than develop such an instrumentalist tool of worker education that would leave out enormous swathes of the working class.

Still, as Keniston acknowledges, many of the educational materials produced by the IIE under Turner and Fisher’s auspices did in fact include practical workplace direction on how to build a union or conduct a negotiation with employers.  All the same, Keniston (and many of the interlocutors he quotes) characterize the more pragmatic education favored by the trade union activists as a “vanguard” and “top-down” approach, with a pronounced tendency towards white arrogance and Leninist directionism.

But this does the activists of the day a disservice, and reads backwards into the 1970s some of the bureaucratic tendencies that have infected too many of South Africa’s post-liberation trade unions, now subordinated to the ANC’s party apparatus.

At the time, however, the IIE comrades pressing for shop steward training very much imagined they were building black workers’ capacity to organize and run their own shop-floor unions, not dictating how the unions would be organized and run.

At times, Keniston implies that this division within IIE did almost as much to limit Turner’s influence as the state’s repressive efforts, a gross mischaracterization in my view.

With good reason, Keniston sees Turner’s radical democratic thought as germane to our own day, when many other political models advocating “change” seem to have been exhausted. He also clearly believes that Turner, “a firm advocate of socialism rooted in [personal] autonomy and small-scale democracy,” can offer lessons to today’s South Africa, which he characterizes as governed by a “frightening mix of socialist rhetoric, Stalinist organizational principles and capitalist [economic] polices.”

But to claim, as he does, that Turner’s 1978 assassination marked the “end of the era of resistance in South Africa” gravely overstates the case. Many of Turner’s must utopian impulses in fact came to political fruition during the early 1980s, under the umbrella of the mass movements making up the United Democratic Front, as well as in the democratic shop-floor organizations that emerged after 1980 in the Federation of South African Trade Unions.

By no means was the UDF identical with the vanguardist tendencies of the ANC or the SACP.  In fact, the many organizations that made up the UDF at the time carried within them the socialist humanism of Rick Turner, and subsequently bequeathed this impulse to a new generation of South African activists who continue to believe in the utopian radicalism — now directed, above all, against the ANC and the post-colonial state — that remains his most precious legacy.

November-December 2016, ATC 185