• Olivia Earth

Existentialism: a Critique of Apartheid

It was the question of existence that inspired Richard Turner to develop his critique of apartheid. Apartheid ravaged South Africa between 1960 and 1994 (Wilson, 2001:22) and motivated debates on equality, human rights violations and, as an extension, what it means to exist as a human being. Turner looks at apartheid through a lens of existentialism and his criticisms are focused on the ‘liberation of society’ from the authoritarian regime and encompass far more than the redistribution of goods and services.

Turner states that the central problem of his criticism lies in how institutions can be designed to allow all individuals “maximum freedom to choose what to do with their own lives” (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:178). Turner focuses on the notion of decision-making as a good and bad freedom.  This paper seeks to critically examine Turner’s criticisms by defining the conceptually contested ‘existentialism’ and rigorously reviewing his stance though the paradigm of the existentialist thinker.

Defining Existentialism

Defining existentialism is a difficult task as over the years this school of philosophy has been reduced to, as Macquarrie (1972:13) describes it, a “fad”. Jean-Paul Sartre adds that, “the word has been so loosely applied to so many things that it no longer means anything at all”. (Macquarrie, 1972:13). However, this school of thought is almost as intangible as its definition. The advocates of this philosophy deny that reality can be neatly packaged in concepts and argue that the human mind is always incomplete. Only a divine mind, if there be such a thing, could understand, or have absolute knowledge of, everything it its totality (Macquarrie, 1972:14)

From this view, existentialism can be known as an intellectual movement that appears in most parts of contemporary culture. The first utterances of existentialism came from writers such as Sören Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre and, Martin Heidegger however, it truly came into being as a reaction against the atrocities of the Second World War (Sartre, 1946:1). It is important to note that existentialism should be thought of as a ‘method of philosophising’ rather than a ‘type of philosophy’. It follows that this method starts from the human rather than nature, “it is a philosophy of the subject rather than that of the object” (Macquarrie, 1972:14). Thus, the individual is the point of departure. It is the specific existentialist method that is used by Kiekegaard and Sartre that classifies them as existentialists. This can be seen as their outlooks and content of philosophising differ but their methods are the same (Macquarrie, 1972:14).

In order to distinguish existentialism from other philosophies that share the same point of departure, the individual, further criteria must be added to the definition. From the existentialist point of view the individual is a thinking being who can act with intention. Therefore, the entire act of existing is reflected upon which may seem anti-intellectualist due to the philosopher going about his reflections with passion, as is the subject who is herself/himself existing. In emphasising existence, it implicitly means that “one cannot posit a ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ of man, and then go on to make deductions about him” (Macquarrie, 1972:15).

In lieu of apartheid, there are some interesting themes that continue to occur in existentialism. These are responsibility, freedom and decision. These themes make up the core of a human being and differentiate humans from other creatures due to the fact that humans can choose to exercise their freedom and create their own distinctive futures (Macquarrie, 1972:16). However, this often leaves space for criticism that existentialism only considers man in isolation and ignores the role of interpersonal relationships and the influence of community life (Satre, 1946:1).

Sartre states that defining existentialism is easy once one understands that there are two distinct schools of thought. That of the Christian and that of the atheist. However, they are similar in that that both “believe that existence comes before essence” (Sartre, 1946:2). To state that something “exists” is to exclaim ‘that it is’ and thus, is characterised by its “sheer givenness” (Macquarrie, 1972:61). One cannot wish this something into or out of existence however, one can ‘change the form in which it exists’. Then again, once one begins to discuss the form, they begin to move away from existence and in the direction of essence. If something exists it implies that it has a place and time in the ‘real world’ (Macquarrie, 1972:62) Essence can be defined as that which constitutes certain objects that distinguishes them from being another object. The essence of a coffee mug is explained based on conditions of its function, composition, shape, etc. In other words, essence is recognised by its ‘abstractness and universality’ (Macquarrie, 1972:61).

Who is Richard Turner?

Richard or ‘Rick’ Turner, as he was better known, was assassinated in South Africa leaving behind a legacy as a revered political philosopher. Turner’s impact on “South African radical thought” has proven to be monumental (Lichtenstein, 2016:448). He went down a similar path to most of the middle class English-speaking white boys of his time; his youthful days were spent on a farm outside of Stellenbosch, Western Cape, he enjoyed cricket, went to school at St George’s Grammar School and obtained a BA degree from the University of Cape Town (Keniston, 2013:146). He was troubled by capitalism (Keniston, 2010:3) and the “problems and prospects of freedom on a global scale” and kept himself up to date with political current affairs. Turner believed that without the knowledge of politics, freedom would become a “parochial affair” (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:174).

Appropriately, Turner was broadminded about all religious opinions seen in both the East and the West despite his own view, secularism. This mind-set was characteristic of the “post-1960s generation” and thus his exploration was surprisingly harmonious with “political discipline and intellectual rigour” (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:176).Turner was described by Cronin (Sheehan, 2009:8) as being “a kind of French existential Marxist”. Turners enquiring mind led him down a path towards the “emerging force of Black Consciousness” and its magnetic trailblazer, Steve Biko.

Biko was studying to become a doctor at the time in the same city as Turner and they both shared a passion for existentialist thought. (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:176). Inspired by Biko, Turner instigated a “commission that examined workers’ wages and conditions” and thus became immersed in the institutions of the developing black trade unions (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:176). The apartheid government did not allow Turner to receive his award from the Humboldt Fellowship due to his black consciousness work and banned him travelling to Germany to collect his award. His death, that followed two months after the award debacle, was investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission who were unable to produce any real evidence however, they did suspect the Durban security police (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:177).

Turners’ Critique

Turner’s criticisms of apartheid are focused on the “liberation of society” from the authoritarian regime and encompasses far more than simply the redistribution of goods and services. He wanted to create a shift in mind-set in remodelling the “values and forms of life” (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:177).  He took particular interest in the political community and work relations. Turner’s initial notion alleged “that work should become the avenue for the expression of human capacities” instead of acting as merely a manner in which goods are amassed. His second notion states that each citizen should occupy a political community where they get enjoyment from the activities in which they are involved and the achievements of others. In this way Turner saw the community as a hub for celebrating your neighbours and respecting them not for personal again, but to foster a community of peace and support (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:177). This not only creates a society of altruism, but that of respect and tolerance.

During Turners’ inquiries into the “so-called ‘naturalness’ of the major institutions of social life”, he emphasised the issue of ‘common-sense thinking’ (the extensive propensity to view the many forms of social institutions as everlasting and therefore unchangeable) (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:177). Turner was aware of his flaws and cautioned that his readers avoid falling into similar arrogances as the present-day institutions. Examples of these are “private ownership of the means of production, the education system, war and racial domination”. Turner’s flaw therefore lies in the “disappearance” of many different non-government institutions that were taken for granted at their time of being i.e. slavery and divine rule (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:177).

This belief that certain institutions are permanent came about due to society being varied and dominated by powerful socialization processes.  These processes were introduced to the public through the media, schooling systems, and government propaganda. Consequently, both the “dominated and dominator come to accept the system and their roles within it” (Fluxman &Vale, 2004:178). It may be difficult to imagine now but apartheid seemed acceptable to most Whites in the country. The ‘logic’ of white supremacy was reinforced by the fact that most black people were uneducated and were forced to learn in languages that were not their mother tongue (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:178).

Turner believed that education was essential as it initiates people into society and teaches them about their social roles. School enables individuals to think for themselves and does not inhibit them from conceiving themselves as they will. Apartheid denied many people from conceiving themselves any differently to their potentially subjugated role and their way of existing appeared to be stagnant and unchanging (Keniston, 2010:60). Turner did not agree with capitalist schooling that created passive and disempowered students.

Thus, Turner asks the question, how can institutions be created that will enable all individuals access to power without them having power over other individuals and, allow the citizenry “maximum freedom to choose what to do with their own lives” (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:178). This dichotomy must be sorted out as the authoritarian regime limits independence and people lose their ability to assess themselves. This question that Turner asks is inspired by Sartrean existentialism and the leitmotif of transcendence. This is the skill of distancing oneself from predestined social roles, assess them and to ‘transcend’ them. Sartre states that “once we have lost this capacity, we have lost the essence of what it means to be human” (Fluxman and Vale, 2004:178).

The key to ameliorating this problem between hope (utopian thinking) and the potential of a new world rests in the hands of political institutions. The idyllic notion of autonomy underlies Turners political ideas and his institutions. This autonomy can be seen as the assistance of opportunities for citizens to take charge of their lives in a setting of “maximum individual freedom” (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:178). Turner’s ideal political model is encapsulated by democratic socialism.

It is important to know that Turner thought of freedom in terms of the state but also, freedom from man-made social constructs. In becoming a society which maximises freedom, a radical democratisation is needed in the economy and in government. This is how Turner scrutinised apartheid. Turner’s analysis of class began with the “recognition of the existence within a society of structurally imposed inequalities” (Keniston, 2010:99) and he follows this by stating that the concern arises in explaining how the inequalities are perpetuated and how they are noted by individuals who do not benefit.

Turner therefore became a proponent for ‘participatory democracy’ as the answer to South Africa’s dire situation. Turner defined this as being based on workers’ control and that the monopoly or “dominance of one particular political interest group (the owners of the means of production)” must be substituted by a competitive environment of independent collections of people. The collections’ power is ideally equivalent to the amount of people that acquaint themselves with that specific collection (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:180). This idea lies in plain contrast to the reformist policies of apartheid South Africa. This consequently demanded an almost complete remodelling of the limits of possibility for social development. Turner’s socialist critique of apartheid is therefore based on a “moral and strategic aversion to authoritarianism” (Keniston, 2010:4).

Turner wanted to see a decrease in hierarchical power and a de-centralisation of the economy for the promotion of socialist values. In Turner’s view, he said that this could only be achieved if institutions cooperated in “decision-making and management” (Keniston, 2010:4). He challenged the hierarchy due to people like the Minister of Labour Marais Viljoen who stated that the 1973 reform was envisioned to “deprive Bantu trade unions of their life's blood and any necessity for existence”. (Keniston, 2010:97).

Turner was concerned with this notion of limiting someone’s ideas about their existence as this dis-allows, in Turners opinion, an individual to fulfil their purpose, enjoy the “excitement of self-discovery, the excitement of shattered certainties [and], the thrill of freedom” (Macqueen, 2014:516). His continued obligation to existential commitment, strengthened by his foundation in western Marxism, enabled Turner a “theoretically sophisticated moral vision” and intellectually rigorous arguments through which partisan movements and human practice could be measured (Macqueen, 2014:513). Marxism is a theory about power and its distribution: inequality. It provides an explanation of the manner in which “social arrangements of patterned disparity can be internally rational yet unjust”. The Marxist focus is about the deprivation of work for an individual (MacKinnon, 1982:516).

Turner’s criticisms of apartheid became more and more developed until he theorised that the essential feature of “human existence is the choices we make” (Keniston, 2010:7). Individuals can choose to do things, for example, enact apartheid, or individuals can remove themselves from the situation and look for alternatives. But not to do anything or being a bystander is still a choice (Keniston, 2010:7). Turner uses the concept of choice to base his criticisms of apartheid on. His book The Eye of the Needle discusses in great depth that society is “cruel and complex” and that it rests on nothing more than men’s choices and therefore, for that reason, society can be changed (Turner, 1986:18). Turner’s critique of apartheid is therefore existential as it focuses on the individuals in society that make decisions and not on apartheid itself. As mentioned above, the focus is on the individual, and not on the object.

Turner challenged the central ideas of the assumption of a static essence which establishes a human nature which presented itself in a given world governed by natural laws; a world in which value choices were confirmed within the limits of available traditions (Turner, 1986:15). He continues by saying that humans have no ‘nature’ because the arrangement of their consciousness is such that it cannot be bound to anything, and can therefore always doubt any value.  It is this arrangement of consciousness that Turner (1986:16) is referring to when he says that ‘man is free’. He rises above the given towards an aim, “a value which he constitutes himself implicitly or explicitly” (Turner, 1986:18). This ability to rise above or transcend is what makes an individual a human, the essence of humanity. Turner states that one can transcend his goals through reflection however, this skill is gained through your community/society. Consequently, an individual is conditioned by their own society, even though this community and other parts of his circumstance only “exist for him to the extent that he interiorises and lives them” (Turner, 1986:20).

Rick Turner and Foszia, Campbell Collection

Turner lived his convictions and married, for the second time, a young girl of mixed decent (Foszia Fisher). Keniston (2013:148) says that Turner and his wife had a “devoted and very effective partnership” which helped Turner transcend his early writings into the problematic task of creating a democratic labour movement. Their marriage was seen as an antagonistic action of liberalism against the government however, this was not their intention. The decision to get married, under Muslim rites, held no civil authority and had come from the “inward experience of both people” – this means that Turner made the decision based on his value framework which was consciously constituted (Turner, 1986:21).

Turner wanted to be a liberal first and a white second and realised that by marrying his wife he was being true to his cause. Through his marriage he also began to criticise the over simplified notions of what it means to be black or white. He stated that both groups were, in essence, being oppressed but in differing ways. Apartheid created a social setting in which whites were the “lords” and blacks were their inferiors and therefore there were no “full human beings” (Turner, 1986:23).


Turner’s thinking gave an important intervention in the austere politics of the early 1970s. He not only gave a moral explanation for democratic socialism, the marginal system he advocated, but he also suggested practically how to create both political and economic institutions that would lead to his conception of the “new South Africa” (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:176).

Turner criticises apartheid South Africa due to the fact that its authoritarian institutions were not designed to allow all individuals “maximum freedom to choose what to do with their own lives” (Fluxman & Vale, 2004:178). Turner makes the point that an individual will have the freedom to make their own considered decisions if a new world of political institutions arises that prioritise autonomy.

[Originally published: May 16, 2018 2:20 PM]

Reference List

Fluxman, T. & Vale, P. 2004. Re-reading Rick Turner in the New South Africa. International Relations, 18(2): 173-188.

Keniston, W.H. 2010. Richard Turner’s contribution to a socialist political culture in South African 1968-1978. South Africa: University of the Western Cape.

Keniston, W.H. 2013. Choosing to be Free: the life story of Rick Turner. Auckland Park: Jacana.

Lichtenstein, A. 2016. Rick Turner and the South African ‘sixties’. The Journal of Labor and Society, 19:447–466.

MacKinnon, C.A. 1982 Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory. Feminist Theory, 7(3):515-544.

Macquarrie, J. 1972. Existentialism: An introduction, Guide and assessment. London: Penguin Books.

Macqueen, I. 2014. Black Consciousness in Dialogue in South Africa: Steve Biko, Richard Turner and the ‘Durban moment’, 1970–1974. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 49(5):511–525.

Sartre, J.P. 1946. Existentialism is a humanism, in James A Gould & Willis H. Truit (edd), Existentialist Philosophy. California: Dickenson Publishing Company.

Sheehan, H. 2009. Contradictory transformations:   observations on the intellectual dynamics of South African universities. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 7(1):1-25.

Turner, R. 1986. The eye of the needle: towards participatory democracy in South Africa. Johannesburg: Raven Press.

Wilson, R.A. 2001. The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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