THIS series of sermon-length reflections was given at St Alphege’s Church in Pietermaritzburg during 2016 encouraged by the Rector, Janet Trisk, to whom the writer extends his gratitude and thanks. Its focus was on the moral philosophies of people who struggled against past injustice in South Africa, but now occupy only a marginal role in the nation’s collective consciousness; with emphasis upon their contemporary relevance to healing and ethics within a faith community.

Richard Turner: philosopher of hope

Richard Turner was a political philosopher who taught on the Durban campus of the University of Natal. On 8 January 1978 at the age of 36 he was assassinated by a person yet to be identified, but undoubtedly acting on the orders of the apartheid state. From time to time the government realised that people with challenging ideas were more dangerous to the status quo than those wielding guns, and it killed them (Steve Biko had been murdered just 118 days earlier). Turner had been banned in February 1973 in his very early thirties, and thus forbidden to teach, publish or attend any gathering, so it is remarkable that as a philosopher he is remembered at all. There is a road in Durban (formerly Francois Road) and a building on the Howard College campus named after him.

He was considered exotic for his time, having completed a thesis in France on existentialism. While not a practising Christian, he had been recruited by a now long-forgotten commission set up by the South African Council of Churches and Christian Institute called Spro-Cas (Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society) to serve on its economics commission. His minority, dissenting and alternative report was considered important enough to be published by Spro-Cas under the biblical-sounding title The Eye of the Needle.

Turner was concerned about power: where does it lie, how is it exercised, by whom and for whose benefit? Those are questions to be asked of any organisation including churches; but Turner was a big picture thinker and posed the most significant question of his time: how do you remove an unjust system like apartheid while ensuring that power is not simply assumed by a new elite using new forms of repression? Prophetically, he feared that extension of the vote would have insufficient impact on poverty, squalor or exploitation and argued that economic liberation was as crucial as the political. He anticipated, from a distance of 45 years, personality politics and a lack of respect for common institutions and property; a new apartheid of influence and wealth.

Real power, argued Turner, lies in logical thought and rational argument not unsubstantiated authority and rhetoric; in other words, reason rather than mindlessness. He had great faith in a human capacity to think analytically, critically and creatively; and then work meaningfully. True liberation, he thought, must respect the individual, shaking off the dogma and stereotyping attached to group identity and the false prophets and political messiahs who feed on it. (This is a theme common to a number of strands of South African political thought outside the mainstream, particularly on the Left.) He believed that we are socialised into inappropriate thinking that can be reformed through vision, hope and commitment. Society can be comprehended and altered. Injustice – political, economic, social − is not a natural state of affairs; it can be changed.

Given Turner’s prompting we could have expected, in a democratic South Africa, the growth of what might be called rational space that accommodates a flourishing culture of active and meaningful citizenship. Instead, often there has been resort to violence and the dominance of the demagogue; even at our universities.

To tackle his vision Turner advocated Utopian thinking. The term ‘Utopian’ is often used in a disparaging sense, but nothing can be more so than the Christian hope for the realisation of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Turner argued that we should imagine the most desirable state of affairs in society and then work backwards to identify the obstacles; rather than the normal practice of tackling short-term problems piecemeal and then being surprised that we have made little substantial progress regarding the bigger picture. Put simply: if we do not consider the desirable we shall never achieve the possible.

The mechanism for this he termed participative democracy. This was no theory: Turner was influential in its development in the emerging non-racial trade unions of the 1970s. (The Durban Moment during the strikes of the first quarter of 1973 was a watershed point in recent South African history.) In practice, participative democracy involves a flattening of hierarchy, the abolition of undue deference, decentralisation of authority, and co-operative and democratic decision making.

Turner’s politics was one of redemption, a yearning for a radically different social order that draws upon Christian values in which people, love, justice, truth and openness matter more than materialism and other vices and superficialities. At its root was a profound and practical belief in the Christian tenet of love of neighbour through which maximum personal freedom and fulfilment can be established in an equitable society. A transcendent morality can alter established practices and negative habits can be changed in different circumstances − as history has proved. The best example is the development of the concept of human rights, particularly for women and children, since World War II that has been truly revolutionary in its depth and breadth.

Ordinary people can shape history. Perhaps that was Turner’s most radical thought. Indeed, it may have been the one that killed him.

John William Colenso: Victorian activist

‘A very remarkable people, the Zulu. They defeat our generals and convert our bishops’. This memorable quotation has been attributed to nineteenth-century British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, although it has no known source; and the bishop was John William Colenso (1814‒1883), the first Anglican bishop of Natal who lived and worked at Ekukhanyeni, Bishopstowe just outside Pietermaritzburg for over thirty years. Like all historical figures we must consider him in the context of his time, but in terms of the long march of history can legitimately extrapolate his conduct and beliefs and question their meaning for us today.

Colenso was a patriarch, a paternalist and a staunch imperialist; a thoroughly politically incorrect person in contemporary terms. He did not believe in equality, but he did value and practise respect. This meant that in Victorian, colonial Natal he was an Establishment figure increasingly at odds with his own Establishment. Like many highly intelligent people he reached conclusions quickly, so was regarded by other people as overbearing. Disinclined to find fault with the system of imperialism, he nevertheless recognised its shortcomings, which he blamed on the failures of individuals. Unusually for his times, he distinguished between ends and means, and subjected the colonial regime in Natal to withering scrutiny.

Colenso, a mathematician from a conventional religious background, experienced early personal difficulties. And he was fated to live at a time when the nature of faith was being challenged by scientific discovery, especially geological, and the second Industrial Revolution. Influenced by his wife, Sarah Frances, he was exposed to the religious thought of S.T. Coleridge and F.D. Maurice, which argued that faith is intuitive, a matter of personal conviction, not obedience to imposed dogma; and that godliness and worthiness are present somewhere in all humans. It was an antidote to the pessimistic, non-inclusive Victorian view of humankind that ultimately contributed to segregation and apartheid. The need for inclusivity and universalism became particularly evident to Colenso when he needed to transcend ethnic and cultural boundaries. Famously, he was challenged by William Ngidi at Ekukhanyeni about literal interpretations of the Old Testament.

In many senses he was a thoroughly modern theologian. His writings were based on a number of premises: first that new truths, part of history as process, can be faced without loss of faith; second, God as a loving presence; and third, the fact that Christians are not a chosen few. It was an approach predisposed to Christian social activism; although this may not be the way to view Colenso: he was, instead, a conservative patrician with a well-developed conscience. The trial that led to his excommunication was a ‘ridiculous exhibition of religious prejudice … [without] legal standing’ according to his biographer Jeff Guy, a foretaste of many political trials to come in South Africa. His broader religious mission was at an end and he was banished from the established church world.

He turned to political matters and in the case of the trial of Hlubi chief Langalibalele Hadebe he documented a trail of irregularities and a swathe of injustice that led to London’s censure of the colonial government and recall of the lieutenant-governor. At the time of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and its tragic aftermath, the civil war in Zululand of the early 1880s, Bishopstowe was a nerve centre for information and analysis connected to Cetshwayo and the Usuthu that put Colenso further at odds with the local hierarchy and colonial society, but countered colonial government propaganda and prevented multiple cover-ups.

In a sense Colenso was a failure: he won many battles, moral and political, but in his lifetime none of the broader struggles. John Khumalo, educated at Ekukhanyeni, called him a ‘beacon of light’ and we may see him as a voice crying in the wilderness. His confrontation with the crudities of colonial Natal was made in the name of truth, justice and humanity. That has enormous meaning for us today in post-apartheid South Africa. Speaking truth to power is something of a modern cliché, but it was clearly true of Colenso. Today, along with our current archbishop, we can imagine him fighting in the constitutional corner for the rule of law. J.W. Colenso’s descendent, Gwilym Colenso, described the bishop as ‘a voice questioning the legitimacy of an absolute authority that recognized no other viewpoint than its own.’ And his conflict with dogmatic religion prefigured the broad Anglican Church of today in which faith is consonant with lived experience and the imperatives of a just society. But the causes he chose to fight made him into an outsider and a victim, a social and political outcast in spite of his eminence. He and his wife and family paid an astonishingly high price for their beliefs and actions.

Thirteen years ago I wrote an opinion piece for The Witness, arguing that Colenso could be considered Pietermaritzburg’s first human rights activist. Although this was challenged, I believe it to be a valid point of view as long as we regard him as a man of his time; not of ours, but with much to commend to us, a patron if you like of modern activist organisations. In his era he could be considered a missionary to his own people who epitomised individual courage and commitment, but was let down in his struggles with Church and State by those who should have known better and supported him. All the more surprising is the fact that his memory is sustained in Pietermaritzburg by the name of just one suburb, Sobantu.

Colenso leaves us with an eternal question: why is it that a just cause is not always, and perhaps only rarely, a winning one? Perhaps it leads us back to the reflections about Richard Turner and his philosophical questioning of the nature of power: where is it located, who wields it and how, and to what end, purpose and effect?

Albert Luthuli: conviction, principle and the long view

While this series concerns neglected figures in South African history, the name of Albert Luthuli is often paraded in current political conversation, usually amongst a representative list of those who championed national liberation. The politically correct version of his life is that he was fully committed to the ANC’s programme, including armed struggle (so much so that those involved in the first incursion into South Africa via Zimbabwe were named the Luthuli Detachment); and that his death in July 1967 on a railway bridge over the Mvoti River was probably a covered-up assassination. Furthermore, some powerful ANC officials maintain that no one outside their party has a right to comment on Luthuli. We should ignore such illegitimate attempts at censorship; but I would go further to argue that the common contemporary view of Luthuli is largely myth that deliberately neglects his spirituality and ethical beliefs.

To deal with the myth: first, Luthuli almost certainly knew of the ANC’s decision to turn to violence at the time he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, but he was not part of Umkhonto we Sizwe nor was he aware of its launch. If there was any embarrassment about the prize it was the ANC’s, not Luthuli’s. He was increasingly the head just in name of an organisation effectively led by Nelson Mandela who of course went on to claim the same prize. Second, in spite of conspiracy theories around his death, genuine accidents happened even in the bizarre world of apartheid South Africa – he was an ageing man in poor health in a dangerous place. Had the State planned his death, some clue or admission would surely have emerged by now from what would inevitably have been a complex plot. There is absolutely no shred of evidence.

By the early 1960s Luthuli was marginalised threefold. His health was poor and he was becoming forgetful. The State had served on him a series of four, increasingly severe, banning orders since 1952 and proscribed his book Let My People Go. And he was gradually sidelined by new leadership and less democratic ways of operating within the ANC. In other words while its titular president-general he was ideologically, geographically and medically isolated. Indeed, one could argue that the State had no good reason to bother him further.

Luthuli’s ambition was one of service to the people: his politics was an extension of religious conviction and he drew no distinction between the spiritual and the secular. Bishop Alpheus Zulu maintained that Luthuli would have wanted above all to be remembered as a Christian. His kholwa roots at Groutville were deep and went back to his grandparents, although he was born at Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) in 1897 and raised by his uncle. He was a reluctant chief from 1935, deposed in 1952 after being elected ANC president. His membership of the ANC arose from frustration with gradualism, such as his experience on the Native Representative Council (known as the toy telephone). Like another neglected figure, Walter Sisulu, Luthuli abhorred the lack of respect and indifference that underlay apartheid, which, in his Nobel Lecture in December 1961, he described as ‘debasing the God factor in people’.

In a number of senses Luthuli never left the mission station. He belonged to the Congregationalists, whose democratic roots went back to the Puritans with beliefs that included a strong work ethic and independence of the State. Luthuli’s personal priorities were democracy, education, non-racialism, unity and egalitarianism; and above all inclusivity. This meant that his instinct was to be charitable until facts demanded otherwise. In turn, this meant a rejection of racial nationalism, a belief in non-racialism in principle and practice, and an abhorrence of violence. By the way, he was not a pacifist: as someone famously commented, woe betide anyone who tried to steal Luthuli’s chickens.

So belief and a practical Christian way of life informed Luthuli’s politics through that key biblical question: whom do we obey – God, or man? For him there was never any doubt about the answer. The title of his book was no coincidence and he was indeed a Mosaic figure, a leader of enormous stature who reached across the ethnic spectrum befriending South Africans of all communities. This leadership was most obvious during the treason trial of 1956–1961.

But he was in turn a fierce critic of complacency and rejected collaboration as futile. In practice he was radical and militant: he organised sugar farm workers, was an enthusiastic defiance campaigner, advocated the breaking of unjust laws (‘laws that debase human personality’ as he described them), burned his pass in March 1960, and at the time of the Rivonia convictions called for economic sanctions. He had faith that God would ensure right would triumph, but was concerned about the path to liberation and feared extremism and violence. His response to frustration was not to change tactics, but double his efforts – in the spirit of Jesus’ advice to Peter to cast his net again. He was one of the early advocates of Church involvement in social justice issues and engagement with ordinary people and their struggles around everyday matters. His prophetic role meant that initially he found greater support for his moral causes outside rather than inside the Church. As his latest biographer Scott Couper describes, he was more courageous than his Church.

Luthuli is one of the most misrepresented figures in South African history because in popular perception his personal convictions have been subordinated to his supposed public role. What is the lesson of his life for us today? First, he was a man of timeless virtues increasingly out of touch with his own times: as Couper puts it, ‘Luthuli’s people had let him go’; the sort of error we continue to commit by failing to remain loyal to principles and succumbing to current assumption and fashion. Second, he was unwavering in his principled and unconditional belief in non-violence and non-racialism – faith was always more powerful than any political consideration or expedience. And he was adept at distinguishing between ends and means, never making the mistake of confusing the latter with the former. Third, Luthuli is a wonderful example of moral and practical convergence with an ability, like Nelson Mandela, always to think beyond the immediate but rather in the long term.

Moral conviction, unerring loyalty to principle and the long view: that is the legacy of Luthuli to a faith community.

Steve Biko: Black Consciousness and individual empowerment

Given the significance of his political thought and the philosophy of Black Consciousness (BC) to modern South Africa, reminders of the life of Stephen Bantu Biko are few, though his end is well remembered. Seriously assaulted by Port Elizabeth security police, he died of extensive brain injuries in Pretoria on 12 September 1977. BC structures and organisations were then banned and their cause marginalised, just as the apartheid state desperately desired. The armed struggle of the African National Congress was less feared and relatively easy to contain.

Biko had harsh things to say about the colonial history of South Africa, about the role of missionaries and Christianity, and about oppression and exploitation. But he drew a clear line between his view of past and present, and his hopes for a radically different future. He left behind a significant body of writing and the evidence he gave at the Black People’s Convention- South African Students’ Organisation (BPC-SASO) trial of May 1976.

His concern was not power, but empowerment. Brought up as an Anglican, Biko believed it was a sin to be oppressed. As a rugby player, he used a suitable metaphor: black people were standing on the touchline when they should have been playing the game. His view was that after 1948 black South Africans became a defeated shadow of themselves; and their sense of self, of pride and of dignity needed restoration. The apartheid system produced people who needed to rediscover their own initiative and emancipate their identity. The struggle was a matter of finding true humanity, of psychological liberation; which of course applied in equal measure to all South Africans. This was not new: the Transkei clergyman and hymn writer Tiyo Soga had in the mid-nineteenth century extolled the virtues of self-reliance. Ironically, the roots of BC lie in the very mission-inspired education that was criticised so severely.

Biko emphasised practical day-to-day struggles. And the BC movement lived up to this belief through its local projects: the most famous, the Zanempilo Health Clinic at King William’s Town, was dedicated to curative and preventative medicine and community building. It operated openly and strictly within the law, challenging injustice through communal effort.

BC philosophy rejected the immorality of the apartheid system as a matter of principle, withdrawing into a separate and parallel realm where psychological rehabilitation could be achieved and a modus vivendi established. SASO’s famous break with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in the early seventies was a strategic necessity of a particular time. Critics, especially liberals and radicals aspiring to non-racism, saw it as reactive racism. The South African government saw it as a hopeful development. But this was a serious misjudgement all round. Biko strongly opposed any form of racial monopoly. He examined critically the Martinican writer Aimé Césaire’s inspiring maxim – ‘there is room for all of us at the rendezvous of victory’ – and his speeches and writings clearly reflected that hope. In other words one world view, that of racial supremacy, had to be dismantled before a better world could become possible.

He did not believe that a true consciousness of self could or would be emancipated from the mental imprisonment of apartheid through the barrel of a gun. Real change could emerge only from non-violence. The year before his death, he affirmed a belief in the power of ideas and persuasion in pursuit of justice. His rationality was of course met by deaf ears, although he apparently continued to believe that the government would eventually negotiate: he was proved correct twenty years later. His aim was not to turn the tables, but provide South Africa with a more human and humane face; one open, shared society to which everyone would contribute on the basis of free participation and equal opportunity.

In a letter to American senator Dick Clark, he expressed his desire for a non-racial, just and egalitarian society. And in one of his last interviews, he repeated his hope that race would be eliminated from any future political dispensation. His friend and editor, the Anglican monk Aelred Stubbs, saw Biko as a selfless revolutionary, a martyr for righteousness and the embodiment of hope for South Africa. Indeed, Biko’s version of BC places great stress upon hope and its rekindling: to a significant extent his credo was a matter of faith as much as practical politics and much of that faith rested on Christian principles. Therein lay its great appeal; and perhaps also its potential defeat and Biko’s early death. Another close friend, the journalist Donald Woods, felt that South Africa became irrevocably a different place the day Biko died.

History is cluttered with unanswered and unanswerable questions about what might have been. Had Biko lived and BC thrived, what would South Africa be like today? There is too little trace of his political faith to be found now in a country in which racial nationalism and Leninist practice have squandered skill and goodwill, nurtured corruption, and, worst of all, continued to devalue humanity. That stirring ambition of a victorious rendezvous appears as elusive as ever …


This series of reflections looks at four eminent South African thinkers. One could not find four more disparate characters: even the two close contemporaries, Turner and Biko, came from totally different backgrounds. They all have in common the fact that their beliefs and ethics are, if not forgotten, then largely disregarded. But on a more positive note, what values did they share that might provide inspiration today?

All of them demonstrated determined hope, in spite of incredible odds stacked against them, for greater justice they believed could be achieved through logical thought and rational argument rather than rhetoric that descends into violence; in other words, the sovereignty of the power of ideas. In all four cases this pitched them into conflict with the establishments of their time, in two cases with fatal consequences. Their belief in transcendent morality showed itself the most potent weapon against intolerance and exploitation even though its propagators often seemed like voices crying in the wilderness as they confronted the powerful and sinful.

All of them showed a need to distinguish ends from means and the need to think about the long-term, bigger picture. All of them were basically concerned about the nature of power and where it lies in society – who wields it, and to what end and effect. All of them recognised that legitimate power cannot be exercised without a firm ethical basis, delegitimising those biblical-sounding villains of South African politics – false prophets and messiahs.

All of them, one might argue, nurtured Utopian hopes, although Turner was the only one to articulate this directly. Their individual aspirations for a more just society took on different forms. But all believed in the possibility of redemption of unjust political, economic and social orders and to that extent they were all in their own fashion genuine revolutionaries. They deserve the close consideration of all South Africans today.

The four subjects of these reflections are considered in the order in which the talks were given, largely on dates that had commemorative relevance.