However, his most enduring legacy may be his influence on a committed cadre of student activists who helped establish and organize black workers into trade unions in Durban in the early 1970s.
I’ll let others talk about his involvement with Steve Biko and the black consciousness movement, his influence on the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) and its deep philosophical questions about a Marxist epistemology, unfortunately still unpublished. I want to talk about my experience of Turner as a teacher and then his influence on white student activists who organize workers and their role in these organizations. However, it is important to first situate the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Universities had been racialized by the apartheid state over a long period of time – so by the late 1960s the University of the 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 one black campus (the medical school) – they were entirely run as if they were separate universities.
Nusas was the predominant student organization in English universities at the time. But in 1969, Steve Biko (from UND medical school) led the Nusas breakaway and established the South African Student Organization. This left Nusas, along with its predominantly white membership, in a dilemma about its role and direction, which opened up a debate that might not have been opened up given its smug pride in its multiracialism. It is in this context that a critique of white liberals emerged and a more radical class analysis took place. Turner played a central role in this exploration.
The banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960 and their exile meant their organizational and ideological absence from campuses at the time – certainly at the University of Natal when I was there. It is no coincidence that, quite simultaneously, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was an independent exploration of the meaning of race and class on various campuses across the country. Exposure to different currents of thought led to black consciousness on the one hand and marks of undoctrinaire Marxism on the other. Although sometimes forgotten, it should be remembered that exile movements were initially hostile both to these ideas and to the organizations these ideas spawned.
There is another piece of context that is important and critical to Rick’s analysis in The eye of the needle possible places of struggle.
First, the unions that organize African workers are not illegal and although their leaders are frequently harassed, detained or banned, the organizations themselves are not banned. In other words, despite the authoritarian nature of the state, there was room for organizations to oppose it. There is an important characterization 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 out for internal legal opposition to occupy – often closed but only to reopen.
One of these spaces was that offered by a liberal university and academic study and research. Political philosopher Michael Nupen and Turner established courses in political theory at the bachelor’s and honors 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. This space in universities has become 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 who openly explored theories of class and race in their courses and publications despite the ban periodical by the apartheid state of teachers, students and books.
As Turner himself stated and Tony Morphet qualified himself in his introduction to The eye of the needle“In South African academia, good pedagogy is inevitably radical politics — though the corollary is not always true.”
This then allows me to look to Turner as a teacher. He was no ordinary college professor. His lifestyle was so superficial, like that of his students. He lived in a communal arrangement. He let his red hair grow. He let unwashed dishes pile up in the sink and surrounding counters. He had some used dilapidated furniture. Sometimes he held seminars in bed when he was sick. It had no palate to speak of – its staple food was lentils and alcoholic 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 poorly answered questions (sometimes sounding deeper than intended), and asking counterfactuals – that you can see and hear at work in The eye of the needle. I’m not sure he ever used the term hermeneutics, but it was his method and a method he employed in his exegesis of the texts.
I remember a public debate between an imam and Turner regarding the differences between Islam and socialism. The imam described the similarities (Moscou and Mecca, Marx and Mohammed, Das Kcapital and the Koran etc) and the differences (theism v atheism). Turner (unlike us who utterly despised superficiality of analysis) quietly replied that these similarities point to deeper similarities and, of course, differences. But the differences didn’t matter because they were about belief in the afterlife while the similarities were about life on Earth. He then engaged in a deeply humanistic exegesis of the text of the Quran to argue for a socialist society in the same hermeneutical way he used the Christian Bible to do so in The eye of the needle.
Let me now turn to his influence on the nascent organization of black workers into unions in the early 1970s. There are four interrelated arguments that are central to his theory of change in The eye of the needle.
the first The argument is that there is space for legal internal opposition (the survival of the black trade unions established in the 1970s and their meteoric growth and presence and that of the UDF in the 1980s testifies to this). International isolation and armed struggle were not the only forms of struggle – both critically assessed in The eye of the needle.
the second argument is that one of the main sites of internal opposition to the apartheid state was the organization of black workers into trade unions.
the the third is that these organizations must be participatory and democratic.
the Fourth is that opposition to the apartheid state must, by its very nature, be black-led – the role of white activists was to support, not lead.
This support took different forms – all inspired by Turner and involving Turner despite his restraining order, which prevented him, among other restrictions, from giving lectures, publishing, attending rallies and union activities. the Institute of Industrial Education was created to serve as a school for trade unionists. the South African Labor Bulletin has been published to provide information and to stimulate critical analysis and debate on the issues facing workers. Historians were encouraged to uncover the workers’ hidden history. Economists and social scientists have been mobilized to conduct research on poverty lines and living wages to support wage negotiations. Advice offices were established to assist workers with individual complaints ranging from underpayments, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation to pass laws. But the most critical form of involvement was the direct involvement of white activists in organizing black workers into unions.
In the space of two years before the first round of bans on these activists in 1974, unions organizing black workers were formed in the textile, metalworking, transport and chemical industries.
The constitutions of these unions were developed to operationalize Turner’s central arguments about participatory decision-making and worker leadership. Workers elect their shop stewards at the workplace. The union delegates appointed a representative from among themselves to sit on the branch executive committee of the union. Branch members nominated a representative to sit on the union’s executive committee, which had the power to appoint and fire officials. It was inevitable that given the demographics of the South African workplace, these executive committees would be black – not by ideology but by fact.
Although in the beginning white activists were officers in important leadership roles, their role was to be scaffolding – to fall once the union was up and running. Although we intended to voluntarily move into supporting roles rather than leadership roles, the state did the work for us. Five of us were banished in 1974 to be replaced by other white activists.
But by the time they were banned in 1976, the unions were firmly in the hands of their labor leadership. It should come as no surprise, then, that during our restraining orders, some of us studied law by correspondence so that we could provide a new form of support to these unions, namely as labor lawyers . SM/MC
Halton Cheadle is Emeritus Professor at the University of Cape Town.
This is the second in a short series of articles reflecting the life and writing of Rick Turner. The first is here.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Turner’s book, the needle eye, and the relevance of its avant-garde philosophy in the current era, the minds Southern Center for Inequality Studies (SCIS)supported by Maverick Citizenorganizes an online public conference on Tuesday, February 22 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.: Utopian thinking, revisiting the ideas of Rick Turner in the current political context. To register for the event via Zoom: https://rb.gy/5dm6zc