RICK TURNER OP-ED
My personal reflections about writing The Eye of the Needle
When you have the clarity and vision Rick Turner forged for himself, no obstacle was bigger than his ability to find a solution. And for the state, its final acknowledgement of defeat was to stop him with the bullet. He did not believe that freedom could be granted or taken for granted. He took freedom as a right that can only be grasped by an awakened mind, a mind open to thinking beyond the box and willing to face the uncertainties of the not yet known – as did Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and so many more.
Since the writing of The Eye of the Needle in 1973, the societies we live in are more contracted, more self-focussed. The language we use to describe problems and opportunities for change have moved on, but the basic issues remain the same. We are more connected technically and electronically than ever before in recorded human history, more wealthy in terms of availability of resources to meet human needs and the caretaking requirements of the planet.
And yet we are more disconnected, more impoverished, more displaced and more neglectful of our natural environment. The End of History theory and the promotion of the Selfish Gene offer no meaningful contribution or consolation to our global dilemma. And we are more compelled than ever to think beyond the given, to question what is deemed inevitable about social development and fixed in human nature.
Like the rest of the world, South Africa is at a crossroads.
The democratic rainbow country that was triumphantly birthed with the transfer of power from the National Party, has failed to deliver the promise of its commendable Constitution. The undertaking of the trade unions to be champions and bastions of participatory rights in the creation, management and distribution of resources has collapsed into power grabs and further entrenching of the rural-urban divide.
We got to where we are both globally and specifically in South Africa because of the value choices we make collectively as societies and as individuals in our personal lives, based on our conscious or unconscious beliefs. And the values that are laid bare by the choices that have been made prioritise profit over people, exploitation over sustainability, greed over redistribution.
The Eye of the Needle and the life of the man who wrote it, continues to shine a torch on a sustainable future and the possibility of its creation. The only escape from cynicism and belief in one’s own powerlessness is in “articulating and defending a vision of an ‘ideally possible society’”
Beliefs create reality. Who knew?
I certainly didn’t. But after encountering Sartre in the library at Salisbury Island (a segregated “tribal college” in Durban for people of Indian descent), and then Rick, the illusion that human beings have fixed natures, determined by their genes and expressed as personality types, was swiftly dispelled.
That we can choose how we respond to, rather than to react against, situations, was a powerful liberating realisation. We are not trapped in the Sisyphean task of unmasking or unmaking the global capitalist monstrosity that western civilisation has become in order to choose different values by which to live our lives. And acting on this belief, Rick and I chose to live our lives as freely as we could in an authoritarian, oppressive and racially divisive South Africa.
A statement repeated x number of times takes on the form and weight of fact – it becomes perceived as “fact”. There are facts that exist independently of human opinion: the stars in the sky, night following day, the progression of the seasons, that there are species of animal and plants that are different from each other and from humans. We can apply different names to them but the fact of their existence is incontrovertible.
But then again, there are facts that bounce against the reality of beliefs, and no matter how much supporting evidence is presented, no matter how many surveys are conducted, those beliefs persist in holding that version of reality as true, as self-evident.
There are still people who believe that the earth is flat; that the creation myth is an historical fact. There are people who continue to believe that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the US. Arguing people into change without meeting them at their belief system results mostly in further entrenchment of their beliefs and, over time, it generates the conflicts that spark wars.
An authoritarian, oppressive racially divided state uses fear and shame to keep the different groups in their designated places. It was self-evident to the apartheid state and the vast majority of whites that those who were not so blessed by colour and class were inferior species of beings whose only source of value was the provision of cheap and expendable labour.
Rick and I chose to shrug off the coats of shame and fear and live openly as a couple, willing to take on the ubiquitous surveillance of the state, poised at any moment to push us back into conformity and/or prison. At a personal level, we chose to work through the concerns and anxieties of family and friends who feared for our safety, and to be patient with those who thought us reckless and compromising of both our academic and political futures.
In February 2010, introducing Rick’s work to the online platform Disa, I wrote:
“At the tail end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, two men stood out above all their peers, two men who between them transformed predominantly the consciousness of black and white students in South Africa. One was Steve Biko and the other Richard Turner. Both men were unique outpourings of the vibrant richness of the South African soil. In them we see blazing exemplars of human beings’ ability to harness their formidable energies to transform not only their own lives but those of their compatriots as well. I was fortunate to befriend both on the same evening and a year later, to be married to one.”
Growing up in Durban, living in the city centre within a few minutes’ walk of the “Indian” markets, where in 1949, the month and year of my birth, the race riots had begun, the life I had led prior to meeting Rick was manifestly different from that in which he had grown up.
He was raised in the English-speaking world of white South Africa, where his identity and value were assured and reinforced by the laws, the media and schools he attended. I had grown up in a society divided by race, culture and religion and fuelled by uncertainty, suspicion and hostility. As a child of mixed parentage according to South Africa’s race categorisation, I had to struggle to piece together an identity that kept me whole and around which I could build self-esteem and self-confidence.
When we met, he was a lecturer at the predominantly white University of Natal, and I, a third-year English and Philosophy student at the “bush university” on Salisbury Island (later to be relocated and rebranded as the University of Durban-Westville).
He was seven years and three months older. He had lived in Paris and studied at the Sorbonne. The furthest I had travelled from Durban was to Cape Town and Johannesburg.
We were both unknowns to each other. Neither had dated across the racial divide. We had no idea how it would work, whether we had the stamina, courage and mutual trust to face the pushback we would get from the state, our families, friends and colleagues. By all that was self-evident in South Africa, our relationship should have been a short-lived, partly courageous, partly foolish stab at facing off the legal and political constraints and prohibitions.
That we found a home in each other and carved out a life rich in meaning and purpose, was a fact that brushed strongly against expectation and received wisdom. But we knew that we had to make it up as we went along and take it one step at a time.
What made it possible for us, what gave us the legs to take the steps we did, was our willingness to think and live beyond the expectations placed on us separately by state, culture and custom. And we had to face daily the insidious remnants of our upbringings: pausing when stereotypical phrasing crept back into our thinking and words; when we stopped to ask: what did that mean for you when x or y said or did such a thing?
The thinking that went into the writing of The Eye of the Needle was what created the bricks with which we built our life together. The book was not only a radical critique of the exploitative and repressive underpinnings of the South African state and a blueprint of hope for a free and equal South Africa, it was also a reflection on a personal journey. A journey from separatist, disjointed, dualistic, oppositional thinking to holistic, interconnected, receptive thinking and living. The Eye of the Needle was more than a non-academically presented treatise on utopian thinking by a brilliant academic, it was a testament of lived hope.
Richard Turner understood the power of words to make and unmake reality, to forge connection across opposing differences. He was an excellent teacher and an inspiring speaker, capable of rousing his audience into strategic action.
I once asked him what made him different; how he managed to slough off 29 years of enculturation and centuries of internalised dogma about class and race? He laughed and countered the question. Neither of us could give a pithy answer.
Despite all the received wisdoms on both sides of the divide about the unsustainability of inter-racial relationships, ours worked. It just seemed effortless. Maybe it was because we were both outsiders and at ease in our own company. Maybe it was because we found our spiritual home in philosophy and were both drawn to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Befriending Steve Biko
Rick and I met one evening in February in 1970. He had been invited by the Student Committee of University of Natal Medical School to give a talk on black power. Despite the enthusiastic response of the audience, there was one who challenged the right of a white man to talk to black people about black power. The man who stood up after me to defend both the invitation and the speaker was Steve Biko.
A fortnight later, Rick was back to the medical school to take part in a panel discussion on race, and it was at the impromptu party that followed afterwards, that our friendship hedged towards a relationship. Driving us back into town afterwards, Steve joked that were we to be stopped by the police, he would deny any knowledge of the two people canoodling in the back seat. They had an easy friendship, one that would have deepened over time had Steve remained in Durban. He would visit us at our home in Bellair, and on occasion spend the night. Discussion between the two of them was a feast for the mind.
The security police were a constant presence, as was the threat of arrest and imprisonment. Every day we breached the Immorality Act, the Group Areas Act, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and after his banning, the terms of the banning order.
Wherever we went, we were trailed by a member of the Security Police. We had to contend with daily acts of harassment: the house was fire- bombed; a truck-load of bricks narrowly prevented from being dumped in front of the house; ditto with the cutting down of the bougainvillea hedge surrounding the property. One of our housemates arrived to find fires under the petrol tanks of the cars parked out in front. Our sleep would be interrupted by random police searches or army flares thrown at the side of the house.
And yet lectures were prepared, papers marked, talks given, meetings attended, meals cooked, friends visited and children parented.
In the midst of all that he did, Rick took the time to remain present to his two daughters. So he would call or write “book-letters” so that they could have a tangible sense of who their father was and how he spent his time away from them. He loved reading to them and when they were back in Cape Town, he would send them carefully chosen monthly books so that they could continue to enjoy the delights of the written word.
The Eye of The Needle is important for many reasons, chief among them is the collapsing of the thought box upheld as “reality”. He argues urgently and cogently for the necessity of utopian thinking: thinking outside the box; making ethical choices; the groundswell of our actions; using the power of our minds to imagine a reality better able to meet our needs than what we had been brought up to believe was possible.
He understood more than his contemporaries that it is the power of the imagination that led Einstein to grasp E = mc2 and in one equation to revolutionise physics and Schrödinger to find the cat that opened the box to quantum physics.
What Rick understood clearly was that apartheid was not an anomaly of the economic system, no more than the slave system had been an aberration of the feudal system. Just as the repeal of slavery brought relief to a specific set of hardships and ignominy, so too would the repeal of the apartheid laws. If the basic structure that permitted and enabled a system of injustices to prosper remained in place, indeed a system that was dependent on injustice and inequality for its very survival, nothing except the superficial expression of its needs would change.
When you have the clarity and vision Rick forged for himself, no obstacle was bigger than his ability to find a solution. And for the state, its final acknowledgement of defeat was to stop him with the bullet. He did not believe that freedom could be granted or taken for granted. He took freedom as a right that can only be grasped by an awakened mind, a mind open to thinking beyond the box and willing to face the uncertainties of the not yet known – as did Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and so many more.
How far outside the box?
So here we are now in post-apartheid South Africa and the question is: how far have we moved outside the box? If Rick and Steve and the many other courageous visionaries were here today, would we have been willing to go “further than the state allows”? And would we have been willing to forgo revenge, entitlement and self-aggrandisement?
With hindsight, what different choices would we make? We all arrive into this world to parents who assign us our race, religion, culture and social status. Over our beginnings we have no choice, but the moment we awaken our capacity to ask why and what may be, we begin to engage our ability to make choices that take us out of the box of limitation and scarcity.
And as we begin to acknowledge that we have no right answers, only the rigour and integrity of ethical exploration, we move toward collaboration and co-operation and away from exploitation, coercion and shame and blame. We take responsibility for our choices.
We begin to create the building blocks of utopia as an ongoing project.
Reason and freedom were the twin suns around which Rick’s world turned. Reason, not as in cold logic, as an antonym of emotion, but reason as in the process by which the “why” of things is explored, dug at and exposed to meaning, and through meaning, extends an invitation to understanding. The freedom he valued was not in anarchy and irresponsibility but in the willingness to take responsibility for making things happen for the good, for morally rich and sustainable living.
I’ll give the last word to Rick:
“The limits to growth are twofold. There are limits to the physical resources of our planet. And there are limits to our ability to dispose of our own rubbish. If we continue to expand our production at the present rate without pollution control, then we shall suffocate the planet.
“Unless we end our obsession with growth and re-allocate the resources that we do have left to provide for our material needs – food, shelter and health – we can look forward to a future of famine, growing inequality, social conflict, and universal hate and fear in the struggle for survival.
“The argument against an unequal society and an unequal world is practical as well as immoral. An unequal society is expensive…
“Ultimately the wastage of human resources is even more serious than the waste of physical resources….
“A grossly unequal society is immoral at any time. In our time it is also stupid. We can no longer afford the waste of resources involved. We can no longer afford to stifle creativity, inhibit co-operation and foster fierce and destructive competition for scarce goods.
“We have no choice but to look for happiness, not in things, but in relationships with other people.” DM/MC
This is the last of a short series of articles reflecting on Rick Turner’s life and writing. The first by Chris Desmond and Ben Roberts is here.
The second by Halton Cheadle is here.
The third by David Hemson is here.
The fourth by Eddie Webster is here.
The articles are based on a recent seminar (view on YouTube here) in honour of the 50th anniversary of Turner’s book, The Eye of the Needle, and the relevance of his forward-thinking philosophy today.
Foszia Turner-Stylianou lives in London and practices as a transpersonal therapist. After gaining her BA at Salisbury Island in 1971 and BA HONS in Philosophy from UNISA in 1973, she enrolled on the Applied Social Science Masters Programme under Laurie Schlemmer in 1977. Between 1971 and 1975, she coordinated the educational programs run by the Institute for Industrial Education (IIE) in support of emergent black trade unions, and successfully fundraised in Europe for the IIE and the Unions. In 1976, she was research assistant to David Soggot, the defence attorney in the SASO-BP.C trial. She moved to the UK in 1981, where she coordinated a women’s centre until 1985, before moving to national social work agency Family Service Units as Assistant Director in London.