This year marks the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Richard Albert David Turner. He was an ardent anti-apartheid campaigner.
Turner was born in Stellenbosch, Cape Town on 25 September 1941. He attended St George’s School and matriculated in 1958. He graduated from the University of Cape Town, attaining a B.A. Honours in Philosophy in 1963. In 1964 Turner became involved in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). In the same year he married Barbara Hubbard. He went on to the University of the Sorbonne, Paris, where in 1966 he was awarded a PhD (magna cum laude) on the political philosophy of the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre.
After returning from Paris in 1966 with his wife and two daughters, he farmed for two years in Stellenbosch and then taught for six months as a temporary lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch. In 1970 he accepted a post as a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Natal in Durban. In that same year he made contact with Black Consciousness leaders, among whom was Steve Biko whom he formed a close relationship. Turner's friendship with Steve Biko and others in the Durban-based black consciousness movement enabled him to act as an effective interpreter of black thinking to politically conscious whites.
The year 1970 also saw the end of his first marriage and beginning of his second to Foszia Fisher, a ‘Coloured’ student. In the early 70’s Turner was involved in many projects including the Research programme on working conditions in industrial plants and the Workers’ Education Project. In 1971 Turner started the South African Labour Bulletin and during 1971 and 1972 he was involved with SPRO-CAS – a Study Project on Christianity in an Apartheid Society.
Turner had a tremendous interest in student politics. He acted as advisor to NUSAS and held office as honorary Vice President. He gave many public lectures, extension lectures and seminars and was at the centre of student politics. Turner also wrote a book called "The Eye of the Needle – Towards Participatory Democracy in South Africa". The South African authorities thought that the book exercised a strong influence on opposition thinking with its plea for a better, communal and non-racial South Africa. Such a society, he argued, would liberate whites as well as blacks. A year after the book was published in 1973 Turner was banned for five years. The banning prevented him from attending gatherings, leaving Durban, and also from entering factories, trade union premises, or the University of Natal, and from publishing or preparing any material for publication. He was not allowed to visit his two daughters or his mother. Even though he was banned this did not stop him from speaking out and in April 1973 Turner and other banned individuals staged an Easter fast to illustrate the suffering that banning impose on people. After his banning Turner was kept on the staff at the University even though he was not allowed to lecture.
His commitment and involvement with students led to him being called to testify before the Schlebusch Commission of Inquiry into Certain Organisations in his capacity as NUSAS advisor (although he was involved in projects with each of the other organizations targeted by the Commission: the University Christian Movement, the Christian Institute, and the South African Institute of Race Relations).
During his banning, although he could not publish (although he managed the occasional article under someone else’s name), he began a comprehensive work broadly covering political philosophy and morality. In spite of his banning order Turner was able to appear as an expert witness for the defence in the trial of nine Black Consciousness leaders under the Terrorism Act. In November 1976 Turner received a Humboldt Fellowship, one of the world’s leading academic awards from Heidelberg University, but after months of negotiating with the Minister of Justice was refused permission to travel to Germany.
Shortly after midnight on January 8, 1978, two months before his ban was due to expire, Turner was shot through a window of his suburban Durban home and died in the arms of his 13-year old daughter, Jann. His death robbed South Africa of one of its most strident anti-apartheid campaigners and political thinkers.