Choosing to be Free: The Life Story of Rick Turner

Choosing to be Free: The Life Story of Rick Turner

by Billy Keniston


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Rick Turner was one of South Africa's most original and powerful thinkers and is remembered today as a remarkable teacher and activist. For almost ten years, from 1968, when he returned to South Africa from his studies at the Sorbonne, to 1978, when he was shot by an unknown assassin, Rick Turner played an important role in the opposition to apartheid, especially by provoking whites to expand their vision of what South Africa could be. Believing in the 'necessity of utopian thinking', he wrote a short book, The eye of the needle (1972), that sought to envision a very different kind of society. It has become a classic of its kind. For the authorities Rick Turner was a constant source of annoyance, a threat and anomaly that had to be dealt with. What was most dangerous about him was that his life and thought failed to fit within the dominant narrative of his time. Never a member of the ANC or the Communist Party or any political party for that matter, he propounded a vision for the transformation of South Africa that was both independent and radical. Although he lived a short life, he nevertheless had a great influence on those around him, including people like Steve Biko, and had a profound effect on people's imagining of what was possible. In the end, he became too much for the apartheid system and was killed. Even today, in the severely compromised political climate after the end of apartheid, the need for the kind of idealist vision that Rick Turner lived and died for is perhaps just as urgent.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781431408313
Publisher: Jacana Media
Publication date: 02/10/2014
Pages: 251
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Choosing to be Free

The Life Story of Rick Turner

By Billy Keniston

Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Billy Keniston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4314-0833-7


Space to Be

'My entire life is based on this contingent and absurd choice.'

–Richard Turner


Richard Turner was born on 25 September 1941 in Cape Town. As a white male South African at the time, Richard was more or less guaranteed to have a life of relative comfort, materially and socially. That he would be well cared for, given a decent education and would pursue a stable career was a given. There was nothing particularly remarkable about his origins or, at least, nothing that would indicate his later aversion to the morals and habits of the community that raised him.

Richard was the only child of Jane and Owen (Paddy) Turner, who had emigrated from England. As a young man, Paddy had come to South Africa as a soldier in the British Army in the Anglo-Boer War. Jane had been raised in the working-class East End of London. When she met Owen, he was already twenty years her senior and had been widowed. After Jane and Paddy married, she agreed to move to Africa with him, in search of a better life. At first they settled in what was then known as the Gold Coast (now Ghana), where Owen became co-owner of a construction company. According to Tony Morphet, when Jane fell pregnant, 'it was decided that Mrs Turner should travel south for the birth of the baby because the local medical facilities were inadequate ... and Cape Town was the obvious choice. It offered excellent medical facilities, it was sufficiently British in general orientation and it was attractively safe from war-time hazard.'

Using the money they'd earned in the Gold Coast, Jane and Paddy established themselves by purchasing a small-holding outside Stellenbosch. The farm, which was known as Welcarmas, while modest by South African standards, included a hundred or so acres of land, two cottages, and a house with a grapevine-covered veranda that for many years (until 1960) served as a country tearoom. The land was set on the steep slopes of Helshoogte (Hell's Heights) mountain pass, overlooking the Stellenbosch valley below. Welcarmas was primarily a fruit farm. In addition to growing and selling fruit, the Turners ran a packing operation called Simonsberg Fruit Supply, which packed fruit from neighbouring farms in the area for export overseas. Bought at the end of the 1930s, the farm was obtained relatively cheaply, but as the economy recovered after World War II and overseas markets became accessible again, fruit farms such as the Turners' became much more valuable. While the family never amassed a fortune from farming, they nonetheless lived comfortably. Relatively speaking, they lived a life without luxury, but at the same time they always had all they needed.

Welcarmas became a central feature of Richard's life. Not only did he spend his childhood years there, but he remained a frequent visitor to the farm during his days as an undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town, and he returned to live on the farm again after finishing his doctoral studies in Paris. The first twenty-eight of his thirty-six years alive were spent orbiting around this same patch of land at the top of Helshoogte. Over the years, Richard's relationship with the farm took many forms, though he was rarely, in fact, involved in actually working the land. As Jane was soon widowed, she ran the farm more or less alone, with the help of about a half-dozen workers. There was a coloured family who lived on the land, the Louws, and Jane also hired African migrant labourers from the Eastern Cape. While Richard did help out with various tasks around the farm, such as pruning and helping take produce to the market when he was a young adult, in the main he was allowed ample time to focus on his school work and on playing with his friends.

During his university days, Richard would often drive out from Cape Town – about fifty kilometres away – at the weekend, and bring his friends or his girlfriend, Barbara Hubbard, with him. For three years, Richard and Barbara lived together on the farm, running it together so as to allow Richard's mother the chance to take a break. But even during these years, the business of the farm was less prominent in Richard's life than his relations with radical students and intellectuals from UCT and Stellenbosch. So, in essence, Welcarmas was primarily a space for Turner to develop himself – a space in which he felt at home and able to devote time to shaping his ideas through reading and conversation, his two favourite pastimes.

That Richard was able to thrive at Welcarmas was due in no small part to his mother Jane. Throughout Richard's life, Jane Turner was a powerful presence, providing deep and unflinching support and care for her son. Richard's father Paddy was an alcoholic, which greatly limited his capacity to be present for young Richard. None of Turner's childhood friends can recall Richard ever mentioning his father; it seems that the two had virtually no relationship to speak of. Further, drinking contributed to Paddy's early death, when Richard was only 13. Paddy's absence – first through alcoholism and later after his death – was an important and abiding loss for Richard. Although he did choose sobriety as an adult (no doubt influenced by his father's choices), he otherwise showed no signs of being damaged by his father's addiction. In essence, Richard was his mother's son – and an only son, at that. Jane more than compensated for the loss of her husband.

Jane Turner showed her deep love in her own particular way, which was rarely sentimental. She had a fierce temper, and Richard would have had to learn early on not to cross any of her boundaries. At the same time, Jane was relatively permissive, in the sense that she allowed Richard considerable room to be autonomous and make his own decisions. She believed that he ought to be able to learn from his own mistakes. Further, Jane consistently indulged her son's wishes, from playing cricket with him as a small boy and buying him the magazines that caught his fancy to hosting his friends and allowing him to spend his teenage days absorbed in thought. Jane's indulgence of her son's voracious desire to grapple with ideas allowed him a nurturing foundation to trust his innate intelligence and pursue a lifetime's vocation as a thinker and teacher. Jane remained proud of her son and supportive of his thinking even when his ideas led him deeper and deeper into a head-on collision with the apartheid state.

If anything, Jane was protective of her son to a fault. Her deep love for him caused her to struggle at moments with making room for Richard to have other fulfilling relationships in his life, especially with his girlfriend and later wife, Barbara Hubbard. Jane is remembered often by family friends for her hard edges, for her capacity to be cold or fierce. But whatever her faults, Jane's support for Richard during his youth was very special. She created space for him to simply be, to grow into himself without pressure to follow any particular course in his life.

All things considered, Richard Turner was well raised. All his material needs were more than suitably met and he was afforded plenty of leisure time. Even if only by one parent, he was well loved and imbued with a deep sense of confidence in himself. Perhaps it was a bit of a lonely childhood, with no siblings and with having to spend years away at boarding school. Richard quickly matured into a rather unworldly young man, absorbed in quiet, creative pursuits, inside himself; he devoured books and began his lifelong love affair with rational thought in his early teenage years.

A colonial product

Mike Hubbard

Richard was a colonial product in some sense, but not in the stereotypical sense. It's a passing culture, the British in Africa. Whatever background you came from, as a European in Africa you could in some quirky way rise up. Jane, his mom, was very much like that. She was from a very tough generation.

A story could easily be written about Jane, how she went from a poor background in eastern London to be running a farm. Very much a self-made person. Jane was, oftentimes, rude. She was a tough and difficult person, very vulnerable in some ways and quite easily hurt. At the same time, she could be very kind.

The first time I went out to the farm was when I was 11 or 12. I biked out there with my friend from Koelenhof, near Stellenbosch. It was about a five- to seven-mile ride. We struggled up the pass and we got up there around one. We cycled up and there was Jane, who was in her early fifties and quite glamorous.

In any case, she was surprised and amused to see us, so she said, 'Let me get you some lunch.' So we went back to the house and we didn't need our packed lunches. Jane provided a nice lunch for us and we went on our way. That was quite an adventure.

Space to be ourselves

John Clare

Richard and I went to St George's Grammar School, a private high school run by the Anglican Church. Both our parents had enough smarts to let us escape the South African state system. Nonetheless, ours was a rather dim little school. At school they didn't ask the best and brightest to talk about ideas. I don't think you can imagine what an intellectual desert South Africa was.

I think we both felt we were outsiders, so we sort of clung to each other. And we both thought that apartheid was essentially ludicrous right from the start. It was the one immediate common ground that we had. We didn't know anyone else who thought apartheid was totally ludicrous. We were both completely bemused and outraged by apartheid. It seemed natural to both of us to feel this way and we couldn't understand why the rest of the world around us was clearly off its rocker.

We lived in a white world with black servants, and there were all sorts of things that blacks couldn't do. They couldn't sit on the same park benches, they couldn't sit in the same buses, they couldn't stand in the same queue. You had to be pretty bloody stupid not to notice, but yet everyone else presumably did notice but had grown accustomed to it or believed their superiority was dependent on being accustomed to it. We couldn't get over how absurd it was. And also, how disgusting it was.

But they weren't the things that we talked about. I'm surprised, looking back, how little time Richard and I spent talking about these issues in our youth. We were both going through a normal adolescence, I guess.

I spent all my summer holidays with him, at the farm. There was this large rambling bungalow at the top of the pass, and just below it there was another bungalow. And that, for Richard and me, was our haven. It was surrounded by eucalyptus trees and very private. Jane just turned over the bungalow to him. She never pried, never interfered, never poked around. We were free to do there exactly what we wanted. And what we did was we talked most of the night and we slept most of the day. What a liberation for young people of our age in this period! In this strict, critical society, to be free together to do what we want.

Jane may have been difficult. She had this brisk attitude and she was determined beyond sentimental. For example, she ran a tearoom for a while, but she hated it. Jane wasn't a very sociable sort of person and she wasn't one to smile broadly if she didn't know you. I think people found going to the tearoom a bit of an endurance, so fewer and fewer of them went. Eventually she just shut it down.

But Jane was a rare woman for her time. She was interested in ideas. I had never met a woman of her age, of her generation, who was. All my parents' friends were numbskulls. They played golf and bridge and didn't talk about apartheid. Jane was utterly non-racist in her views (but she also tiptoed around the situation in which all people who worked for her were black and she didn't pay them very much).

Jane was always very good with me. Most remarkably, she made those liberated summers possible. She recognised Richard needed his freedom and she recognised that he got something from me. She was as charming as she was capable of being. She didn't ask us to do anything. She just let us go. That was a really magical time. And if you ever have children, do the same. It is the greatest gift you can give a child at that age – 13 or 14. Just give them space to be themselves and not be bothered by adults from the outside world. It's unbeatable.


'The child is not only learning how to understand the world, he is also working out a value system. And it is a system and not just a haphazard collection of independent principles.

(This does not, however, mean that it constitutes a logically satisfactory system.)'

–Richard Turner

Richard had a relatively normal upbringing within a profoundly abnormal society. In 1948, when he was seven, the National Party won enough seats in the whites-only parliament to take office as the government and proceeded to implement its new policy of apartheid. This entrenched the system of segregation that had long marked South Africa and extended it into every area of social and individual life. As a result the physical and social landscape of the country was significantly reshaped, and every effort was made to silence any possible dissent or protest.

The 1960s were known as the 'golden age' of apartheid, when the brutal methods of state repression allowed the economy to grow 'faster than almost any other capitalist country'. White South Africans began increasingly to enjoy an excessively high standard of living, a 'collective white consumer orgy ... uninterrupted by black resistance to apartheid'. But the decade began with an escalating campaign of protest against the system. The African National Congress (ANC) declared 1960 'the year of the pass', to focus attention on the much hated passbooks, which Africans were obliged to carry with them as proof of their entitlement to live and work in the 'white' cities of the country. But the campaign was pre-empted by an initiative of the rival Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which had broken away from the ANC the previous year. On 21 March 1960, in the small township of Sharpeville south of Johannesburg, thousands of protesters responded to a PAC call and gathered outside the police station to defy the law and demonstrate non-violently.

All participants arrived without their pass and offered themselves for arrest. In the stand-off that followed, the crowd of some five thousand or more sang freedom songs and shouted slogans while the police slowly gathered reinforcements. Finally, in a moment of tension (the police would later claim they had been assaulted by stones and that the crowd was becoming unruly) they opened fire. When it was all over, the police had killed 69 people and injured 180. It was the most horrific expression to date of the determination of the apartheid state to defend the system. Images taken by journalists of dozens of bodies splayed all over the ground spread across the globe, spurring an international outcry. Many within South Africa regarded the Sharpeville massacre as a crucial moment of awakening.

It was in the context of these turbulent times that Richard Turner grew up and reached the age of entering university. While all of the events of repression and resistance certainly had a profound effect on Turner's later choices, he nonetheless made it through his undergraduate studies largely uninvolved in politics. Richard entered university believing that perhaps someday he would be an aeroplane pilot. He loved pop music and cricket, and going to the (whites-only) beach. In spite of the absurdity of the unequal and segregated society surrounding him, Richard Turner experienced a surprisingly normal adolescence.

He's here! He's here!

Michael Hubbard

It was 1959 and we were living in a residential hotel in Sea Point in Cape Town. It was exciting because Barbara (she was 16) had been to a party and met this boy, Richard, and they were going out on a date. And so I (being 11 years old) was hanging around in the hotel room to see what sort of person could be so crazy and have such bad taste as to want to go out with my older sister.

I remember very clearly I was sitting at the top of the first flight of stairs and this young man with red hair, wearing a tweed sports jacket, came in and asked me, 'Could you tell me where Barbara Hubbard's room is?' And I said, 'Yes, yes!' I raced along and rapped eagerly on the door saying, 'He's here, he's here!'

I was actually taken along on the date. We went to the Odeon Cinema to see a film called Ice Cold in Alex. That was my first meeting with him.

I think he regarded me, as one would if 17 and interested in the older sister, as a complete nuisance to be avoided at all costs. There was certainly some of that. But at the same time I enjoyed his company. I enjoyed firing questions at him because he would always try to answer them. He wouldn't say, 'I don't know about that,' or 'I couldn't care less,' or 'Shut up,' or something like that. However engaged he was in courting my sister, he felt somehow internally motivated to answer my questions.


Excerpted from Choosing to be Free by Billy Keniston. Copyright © 2013 Billy Keniston. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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Table of Contents


PART ONE: The Farm,
One: Space to Be,
Two: A Thrilling Time,
Three: Coming Home,
PART TWO: The Durban Moment,
Four: Whites First, Liberals Second,
Five: An Un-training,
Six: A Very Busy Time,
Seven: A Concrete Alternative,
PART THREE: The Banning Years,
Eight: Not Limited At All,
Nine: The Days Grow Lonelier over Time,
Ten: Scream from the Rooftops,
List of Interviewees,

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