TODAY, 38 years ago, Rick Turner was murdered in Bellair, Durban at the age of 36. His killer has never been identified, but it was without doubt someone (possibly a member of the right-wing Scorpio terror group) acting at the behest of the apartheid state’s Bureau for State Security. 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 severe shock. Consistent with those perverted times his house had been firebombed, car damaged and phone tapped; and since 1973 he had been banned.

Many theories, some far-fetched, circulated about the motive for the murder. Turner had played a significant role in the rise of trade unionism and worker education projects in the early 1970s and was a friend of Steve Biko, an even more influential thinker. It is possible that some elements of the security establishment had labelled Turner the new leader of the South African Left, the successor to Bram Fischer who had died in 1974. 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 or people wielding guns, represent their greatest long-term challenge.

Turner’s philosophy was heavily influenced by existentialism (he had studied in Paris) and two main themes emerge from his only book, The Eye of the Needle published in 1972. The first is the desirability and feasibility of utopian thinking about radically different ways to organise society and manage power within a system of participative democracy so that it does not become another form of oppression. The second is the importance and influence of reason. And he linked these together in a politics of redemption that rejected dogma and recognised that genuine power lay in logic and better argument; not petty tyranny and slogans.

His contribution to political and philosophical debate has largely been forgotten over the years even at the University of Natal, which continued to pay him when he was banned, named a building after him and for some years arranged an annual memorial lecture. But recent events on South African university campuses should bring his name back into the broader consciousness, if only because what has been happening on them is the absolute antithesis of his belief and teaching.

“I know it’s 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 Turner’s teaching. Today Sacks might well write that we need to denounce the sloganeering, muddled thinking, lack of logic and violence that is effectively taking over our universities. The two main ingredients have been there for many years, constituting a disaster waiting to happen. First, mindless managerialism from millionaire executives without a shred of understanding of the responsibility of protecting an intellectual environment; second, student demagogues allowed to get way with building political careers on the back of empty rhetoric and slogans, threat and, ultimately, violence.

The Rhodes must fall and anti-outsourcing campaigns were justified, but ineptly pursued. Any idiot can throw paint and excrement at a statue. But it takes some insight and intelligence to point out that Rhodes may be interpreted as a supremely contemporary figure: a highly rewarded but false celebrity and capitalist exploiter of workers, a double plague of modern society. The memorialisation of his name should have been used for debate about fundamental change. Instead, a statue was carted off in (suitable) ignominy amid yet more meaningless shouting about transformation.

And cleaners, gardeners and security guards should have permanent university employment as they used to, although campus authorities will doubtless over time find ways of employing fewer and fewer of them because of the cost, financial and administrative. But the violence associated with this cause was inexcusable. On many campuses the staples of university life – attending lectures, using laboratories and the library, or even choosing not to protest – became a calculated risk. Several universities closed without completing end-of-year examinations and there is every indication that once the annual shutdown is over the uproar will start again.

Glaringly absent from this scenario have been Turner’s participative democracy and reason. Indeed, much of the participation has simply been imitative and some of it probably coerced. Protest has been led by noisy and often abusive demagogues whose utterances have been notable for a lack of rationality, not to mention civility. There has been nothing of Turner’s radicalism in recent protest, just the tired old mantras and actions of mass protest. Turner feared that an eventual post-apartheid outcome would preserve power and privilege, with democracy meaning little more than periodic voting fuelled by slogans. It was indeed a prophetic fear.

His most subversive thought – perhaps ultimately the cause of his death – was that ordinary people can rise above the mundane and shape history. But this is not the way in which change is currently being pursued. Every apparent victory involves destruction. As Duncan Greaves pointed out in his memorable Rick Turner Memorial Lecture of 1987, his subject believed that certain aspects of existing human socialisation had to be overturned and replaced by vision, hope and commitment. We see little of this in the current conflict; just another band of protestors who wish to upend prevailing standards of reason, respect and civility and impose their own brand of power and influence governed by contemporary fads such as materialism and ego boosting.

South Africans exist too often in the shadow of group identity, swayed by leaders lacking moral stature. Turner placed faith in the ability of a good education to encourage people to think analytically, critically and creatively. 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.

Portrayed graphically, a logical outcome of Turner’s philosophy after apartheid would have been growth in what might be termed rational space where a culture of active citizenship could flourish. But the opposite seems to be the case. South African politics is smothered by the ANC’s practice of patronage and corruption. Transformation is frequently a synonym for racketeering and other unsavoury behaviours. There is less and less room for reasoned debate and logical decisions. It is now assumed that change will only occur after demonstrations, which rapidly turn violent, powered by demagogues. Service delivery protests are now simply part of the daily routine with little understanding that they are a symptom of a simmering civil war: major roads are blocked, no-go areas established and people sometimes die violently.

And while politicians give in to the latest riotous behaviour, so do universities. In the very places where one would expect Turner’s rational space to expand, students and staff going about their lawful and responsible business of study, thought and discussion are subject to intimidation, violence and destruction. What is the future of mature citizenship when those who are increasingly influential in society rely on strong arm methods? The cause of this alarming state of affairs is evident at every level and institution of society: failure of those in positions of authority to stand up for right and the righteous against the corrupt and venal. The rot goes to the very top of the State. Some would argue that it starts there.

Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 40, 8 January 2016