Maverick Citizen

MAVERICK CITIZEN: Tribute

Tony Morphet (1940-2021) – The ‘Durban Moment’ public intellectual who merged social and civic life

Tony Morphet in San Francisco, 1978. (Photo: Supplied)

The much-loved and deeply influential educationalist and critic Tony Morphet died peacefully at home in the early hours of 2 May. This came after a lengthy illness, which he bore with stoicism and grace, intellectually alert and active to the end.

What goes into the making of a public intellectual life, one in which academic passions merge positively with social and civic life?  

Tony Morphet was born in the small town of Kokstad on 1 April 1940, the youngest child of immigrants from Yorkshire. His farm upbringing left him with a deep respect for the harsh realities of rural labour, close observation of the natural world, especially of birds, and also a strange (for some) fascination for the complex machinery of tractors. 

Once retired, he took informal lessons to improve the isiXhosa he had learnt as a boy.  

Academically, his studies took him to the University of Natal and a degree in English in 1959. The contours of his political conviction were visible from an early age. At 17, he joined South Africa’s short-lived Liberal Party, where he worked closely with the writer Alan Paton.

Tony Morphet at a birthday party in Pinelands, Cape Town, in March 2016. (Photo: Angelique Smith Photography)

After graduating, he and his first wife, Catherine Shallis, moved to England where their daughter Alexandra was born. A brief stint of school-teaching in England and an Honours degree from London University followed. In 1963 he returned to South Africa to take up a position in the Department of English at the University of Natal, staying in that department until 1975. In 1968 he married Fionna Dodds Miller and they lived with their children Medina and Bruno in Durban, apart from an exploratory foray to Brazil when Medina was a baby.

Something important was happening in Durban in this period in terms of national political life. For Tony, it was to prove a crucial formative moment in his intellectual and political development.  

The ‘Durban Moment’

Between 1970 and 1974 (and with a particular impetus provided by the 1973 strikes), Durban became a crucible for activist thinking and new forms of political and academic analysis. This was – as later historians call it, in a phrase of Morphet’s coining – the “Durban Moment”.  

While in the Medical Faculty, Steve Biko was developing the new politics of black consciousness, Richard Turner in Philosophy was arguing for a new attention to workers’ education and the human dimensions of participatory democracy.  

In an attempt to restrict their influence, both Biko and Turner were placed under banning orders and, in the end, assassinated.  The Durban Moment was a frontal assault on the vicious systems and racial thinking of apartheid, and a courageous attempt to think the way through to a democratic future for South Africa, one that seemed almost impossible at the time.  

Labour lawyer Halton Cheadle, a student from that period, remembers Morphet as one of the young lecturers whose teaching challenged the status quo and energised the student body. 

“Tony’s lectures on literature stood alongside those given by Michael Nupen on the Russian Revolution, Rick Turner on the Young Marx, and Mike Kirkwood on black South African writing.”  

This teaching “exploded” the minds of students, urging them to break the mind-forged manacles of the social and educational system.   

In the English Department, Tony’s colleague and friend, Mike Kirkwood, recalls how “Tony always saw things so quickly”. After picking up and reading a remaindered copy of a strange novel by an unknown South African author, he insisted on placing it on the first-year syllabus. The book was Dusklands, by later Nobel Prize-winning author, JM Coetzee. 

While now remembered primarily for its birthing of black consciousness and its stimulus to the nascent trade union movement, the Durban Moment also placed a firm emphasis on the political commitment to education, understood as a democratising force in the lives of individuals.  

This emphasis was exemplified in what Turner called, in The Eye of the Needle (a book banned almost as soon as it was published), the absolute need for the “theorising attitude”. This was understood as the ability to step outside the terms of your socialisation and subject these terms to ethical questioning, in order to act politically in your society.

The commitment to the democratising force of education contributed to Tony’s active choice to shift his professional affiliation from literature to adult education. For Tony (as for Raymond Williams, always a significant point of reference for him), adult education was understood above all as “the desire to make learning a part of the process of social change itself”, (a theme we often discussed as he gave generous advice on my own study of Williams).  

Tony became the Director of Extra-Mural Studies at the University of Natal, Durban, in 1976 a move cemented by a postgraduate diploma in community education at Edinburgh University. 

Though the professional affiliation changed, it was the forms of attention and analysis nurtured through the discipline of literature that gave a distinctive force and style to Tony’s engaged writing and criticism. 

From Natal, Tony moved to the University of Cape Town and its Department of Adult Education in 1980. He took early retirement in 1999 as the brutal managerialism of the period closed down the department. I still remember the shock on the faces of senior administrators when Minister Alec Erwin came to give a farewell address for his old tutor.

Throughout his working life, Tony maintained his commitment to try and realise the democratising force of education. This was done both through his academic writing and teaching, but also by reaching beyond the boundaries of the university to take on important advisory work in the NGO and civil society sectors. 

He responded to a wide range of constituencies, writing policy papers, project reviews and evaluation studies. His many advisory roles included positions on the boards of trustees for many organisations, including the SACHED Trust, CAP (Community Arts Project) and CRIC (Careers Research and Information Centre). 

Tony kept alive his first love, literature, through a constant immersion in both local and cosmopolitan writing and his reviewing career was informed by an acute sensitivity to the historical dynamics of contemporary writing. 

South African writers such as Njabulo Ndebele, Ivan Vladislavic, Joel Matlou, Nadine Gordimer, Charles van Onselen, Isabel Hofmeyr and JM Coetzee attracted his critical scrutiny, while his passion for the visual and plastic arts came through in writings on Bruce Arnott, Jane Alexander and Pippa Skotnes and the architects Eaton and Biermann. 

His repeated and consistent attention to his friend Richard Turner’s Eye of the Needle helped to keep alive a text that the authorities had done their best to forget.  

As a reader for numerous publishers, he worked hard to encourage and caution hosts of young writers in equal measure (his criticisms could be sharp, if always encouraging). His advice was deeply respected (one publisher noting how his careful reviews themselves read like short stories, full of telling detail and narrative drive).  

The review essay

Tony’s intellectual strengths were most visibly manifested in the academically disparaged form of the review essay. In this, his work is best understood as the product of what Edward Said, in the different but related context of American academic and political life, referred to as the commitment to a “secular criticism”. 

Secular criticism always seeks to recognise and understand the connection between the world and the text. For Said it meant a distaste for the professional academic monograph and a preference for the more agile and combative form of the essay.  This fit Tony to a T: he had come to the end of writing his doctoral thesis when, frustrated with being unable to find the source of several quotations, decided he didn’t like what he had to say in the thesis, and junked it, heedless of purely professional ambition.

In his hands, the essay – and particularly the review essay – reminds us of the deeper meanings of what it is to review. This is not merely, as it tends to be in a shallow academic culture, a simple task of paraphrase and the occasion to put forward one’s superior view of a topic.   

At its best, a review engages in a probing conversation with an author.  It is a conversation which takes the time to fully understand where an argument is coming from, before seeking a way to engage with it. It brings into the conversation the resources of the reviewer’s own knowledge and understanding, but in a measured rather than aggressive way. In the hands of a master, reviewing – literally, seeing or reading again, seeing afresh – is a supremely enlightening and dialogical process.  

In his life as in his work, Tony set himself against the seductions of the authoritative monologue, and always resisted the narcissisms of self-certainty.  

Given the deep commitment to active dialogue evident in his writing, it is hardly surprising that Tony was a great conversationalist. Although in many ways a quite reserved person, he flourished in the right setting. 

The sociable hospitality and artful, engaged intellect of his wife, the poet Ingrid de Kok, provided just the right conditions for him. Like so many people, my wife Philippa and I looked forward to every invitation, sure to find, in their Tamboerskloof and then Kalk Bay homes, the pleasures of good company and vivid conversation. 

“Tony sparkled with awareness, and made you feel he was delighted with everything you said,” Philippa remembers. There was always the to and fro of argument and exchange, wit and quick humour about events of the day, and the chance to share in Tony’s deep resources of knowledge and anecdote. 

Recollections of and tributes to Tony have immediately started to come in from friends, colleagues and former students. Marxist philosopher Andrew Nash writes of his first meeting with him as “a life-changing experience – with Tony questioning, validating, clarifying, exclaiming. Forty years later, the impression of that encounter is still vivid.”

Psychiatrist Dr Sean Baumann remembers his “fierce, uncompromising intelligence” and “his wit and exuberant curiosity”.  

Poet and writer, Antjie Krog, writes how an “engagement with Tony always left one thrilled, especially when he spoke of literature. His vocabulary was as incisive as a rapier and he was a touchstone for many of us in our attempts to bypass ego, trends and academic mud to get to the bleeding heart of literature”.

Close friend Prof Rosalind Morris, activist and academic at Columbia University, summed up the feelings of many. “Some people wield their erudition as a weapon to intimidate others. Not Tony,” she writes. “His was an erudition born of passionate curiosity, intellectual humility and a deep engagement with the task of thinking in dangerous times.”  

On the more personal side, his son Bruno recalls the “energetic, vital man, bodysurfing the warm Durban waves” in the 1970s. His wife Ingrid recalls some of Tony’s own most cherished memories: reading Seamus Heaney’s first collection of poems in 1966, hearing Albert Luthuli speak at a rally shortly before his death in 1967; all the times spent with his friend Douglas Livingstone; the sighting of a Pel’s fishing owl in Botswana, and a very long bus ride to Brasilia. The dry stone walls of Yorkshire. Birding in the Drakensberg, Verlorenvlei and Nylsvley. Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. Rapt attention to works by Goya and Velasquez in the Prado Museum, and to the Giotto fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The pleasure of remembering arcane items from the Xhosa vocabulary of his childhood.  

I will add to this his delight in jazz music of the 1920s, remembering, from one of our final lunches together, his total immersion in a recording I played for him of Jelly Roll Morton singing, “Whining Boy Blues”. He had last heard this as a student in Pietermaritzburg in 1959, when he and Catherine were members of the anachronistically named “Afro-American Musical Appreciation Society”. 

Tony leaves behind his beloved children, Alexandra, Medina and Bruno, sons-in-law Jonathan and Steve, grandchildren Holly, Nathaniel and Lydia, his brother Mick and his partner of 30 years, Ingrid de Kok. DM/MC

Professor John Higgins, a close friend of Tony Morphet, is a Senior Research Scholar in the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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  • I was fortunate to be a both a student and a colleague of this radiant man.
    I remember him not so much for his words – which were eloquent and engaging – but for his great big heart.
    Farewell, dear Tony.

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