Richard Turner: A life Expressed in Reason and lived in Freedom
At the tail end of the 60's and the beginning of the 70's two men stood out above all their peers, two men who between them transformed 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 the one.
So it delights me to be able to welcome you to this site. What is offered here are the thoughts, reflections, dialogues and research of my husband, a man endlessly curious about life, excited about the possibilities of change and passionate about the good that we can do. Richard Turner loved words: the spoken word, the written word and especially words exchanged in the exploration of ideas. Words came to him easily. He used them well. Words opened doors into new possibilities. This knowledge he used skillfully. So he was an excellent teacher and an inspiring speaker, capable of rousing his audience into strategic action.
Rick was also a prolific writer. He possessed the rare skill of unraveling complex thought into clear and lucid prose. Among his offerings you will find useful and insightful explorations on politics, philosophy, history, education, sociology, labour and industrial relations. Much has been written about him. So you will find many answers to questions that arise as you read.
There is a major caveat though. No writing ever substitutes actuality. A life is not re-created through words. A life is lived. It is experienced. The more the experience is shared, the richer, the fuller the life. Rick lived such a life. His life embraced, touched and directly influenced so many people. Each one of them holds a special piece of his life. And if all these people were gathered together and they told you about their experience of him, you would begin to see him, to get a sense of him. So I encourage you to read what others have written about him, particularly Tony Morphet's preface to the Ravan Press edition of the Eye of the Needle.
I can only tell you about my experience of Rick. The biographical details are available in many places [Catherine Dubbeld does a good job except for one small detail: Rick's second daughter, Kim, was born in the Cape] so I will not repeat them here. It goes almost without saying that the South Africa in which he grew up was very different to the one in which I did. But through each other we came to inhabit a bigger country: no longer tourists or migrants in the sectors of our birth.
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, asking the same of me. I had no idea. Despite all the received wisdoms on both sides of the divide about the un-sustainability 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.
It was both my joy and my sorrow to know him as I did, to share his life and be actively engaged in the undermining of the apartheid institutions. We lived the society we were engaged in building. From disagreements, we found our way to resolution. We knew what it was like to be listened to. We knew mutual respect. We learned from each other.We met one evening in Feb in 1970. He had been invited by the Student Committee of Natal University's medical school (UNB, University of Natal, Black) to give a talk on the rise of black power in the USA. It was an excellent talk, warmly received by all except one who felt called on to object angrily at the audacity of a white man to talk on the subject of Black Power. The man who rose to his feet to defend both the invitation and the speaker was Steve Biko. The interjector was assured that had there been someone both black and as well read on the subject, he would have been on the platform instead. A fortnight later, Rick was invited back at UNB 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. Taking 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 on 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 breeched the Immorality Act, the Group Areas Act, the 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. The house was fire- bombed; a truckload of bricks narrowly prevented from being dumped at 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, he 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. Reason and Freedom were the twin suns around which Rick 's world turned. Reason, not as in cold logic, as 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 licentiousness and irresponsibility but in the willingness to take responsibility for making things happen.So I invite you to share the rich feast that Rick laboured his life to produce. May you be nourished by it as he was. May you be inspired by what is possible to create, to make happen in your world, as he was in his.
Feb 3rd 2010,