‘I know it is difficult … but we’ve got to think more clearly than the state allows.’ This is how Peter Sacks in a poetic tribute published in 1986 remembered the teaching of Richard Turner. It takes a particularly paranoid government to assassinate a philosopher. So even in the bizarre world of apartheid South Africa, Turner’s murder came as a great shock. He was shot dead on 8 January 1978 in front of his daughter at home in Bellair, Durban. The house had already been firebombed, his car damaged and the phone tapped; and since 1973 he had been banned. Martin Dolinchek appeared before the Truth Commission, denied any involvement, but agreed Turner’s death was a Bureau for State Security operation, possibly disguised as the work of Scorpio, a right-wing terror group.

Many theories, most of them unlikely, were circulated about the motive for the murder. Turner had played a role in the Durban strikes of the early 1970s and in worker education projects, and was a friend of Steve Biko. It is said that some elements of the security establishment had fingered him as the new leader of the ideological Left, the successor to Bram Fischer. But above all, he was a charismatic teacher and an inspired and influential thinker. Authoritarian governments occasionally have the insight to realise that intellectuals, not demagogues, represent their greatest long-term threat. And so it was that Turner died violently and prematurely at the age of 36.

Tragically, he is virtually forgotten today, contradicting another line of Peter Sacks’s poem: ‘your dying meant they’d only driven you out to lead a half-life’. Commendably, the University of Natal paid him while he was banned and honoured him in death. The behaviour of its successor institution implicitly rejects Turner’s fundamental belief in that precious and fragile ability, the power of reason. He championed a politics of redemption that discards dogma, such as the social engineering that continues to blight both South Africa and his old university. For Turner, genuine power lay in logic and better argument; not petty tyranny and empty rhetoric.

His book, Eye of the Needle first published in 1972, is his best-known legacy. It is not an easy read and was reputedly produced at high speed. Turner had attended university in Paris, existentialism underlay his philosophical work and he was influenced by the student revolts of the late 1960s. He was writing at a time of great despair in South Africa and his views on property and workplace organisation now seem quaintly impractical. But his basic message has a great deal to say to us today.

In his eloquent Rick Turner Memorial Lecture given in 1987, Duncan Greaves pointed out that while Turner was a secular man he found in Christianity a radical view of life, one in which people, love, justice and truth matter more than material things. He believed that we are socialised into consumption; and there is nothing natural that cannot be understood and changed in human social organisation given vision, hope and commitment. His most subversive thought – perhaps for him an effective death sentence – was that ordinary people, if they wish, can rise above the mundane and shape history. This had enormous effect on the activism of the 1980s, a period that has yet to be honestly assessed by those involved. It is a belief that needs revisiting.

Some of his writing was prophetic. He feared an eventual political outcome in which power and privilege were concentrated, and democracy meant little more than periodic voting energised by slogans. He anticipated the hijacking of the political process to advance personal agendas; the co-existence of public affluence and private squalor; and a lack of respect for common property. Brought back to life, he would see some of his worst fears realised.

Turner’s philosophy has particular importance for South Africa where individuals too often exist in the shadow of group identity and of leaders guilty of various forms of corruption. He placed faith in the ability of a good education to encourage people to think analytically, critically and creatively; and in the importance of meaningful work. His imagined ideal world was one where the cerebral overcame materialism and produced citizens worthy of the privilege of participatory democracy. This he regarded as the route to maximum personal freedom in an equitable society.

He taught his students that nothing is final in life; except death, of course. His own, caused by a panicked sterile ideology already sensing its own end, was a profound loss. We can only guess where he would now have stood politically and whether his teaching would have become more broadly influential. But the overall point to be taken from his life and beliefs is that unless the utopian is considered, society will make no progress towards what is possible, practical and just.

Introducing the 1987 memorial lecture, Ralph Lawrence called Turner a kind and considerate man, a dedicated teacher and scholar. For someone whose life was devoted to thinking, there could be no better epitaph.

This article was first published in The Witness on 18 December 2007 and entitled ‘He considered Utopia’.

Further reading: Duncan Greaves, ‘Richard Turner and the politics of emancipation’ Theoria 70 (1987), 31−40; Billy Keniston, Choosing To Be Free: The Life Story of Rick Turner (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2013); Richard Turner, Eye of the Needle: Towards Participatory Democracy in South Africa (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1972).