Rick Turner [Richard Albert David Turner] was a charismatic political philosopher and theorist who was also an activist and educationist. He was highly influential in the re-emergence of the Black labour movement and one of the first in the White-left to appreciate the significance of the Black Consciousness Movement. He influenced many future activists, historians and theorists before he was killed at the age of 36 by an apartheid assassin.

A biography of Rick Turner

Richard “Rick” Albert David Turner was born in Cape Town, Western Province, on 25 September 1941, the only child of Jane and Owen “Paddy” Turner, working-class English parents who had settled in South Africa. Paddy had earlier been to South Africa when he fought in the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Rick grew up in Stellenbosch, Western Province on a fruit farm, Welcarmas. After his father died in 1953, when he was 12, he was raised by his mother Jane. Turner was a boarder at St George’s Grammar School, a private school in Cape Town run by the Anglican Church.

In 1959, he registered for a course in Engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT), but he switched to Philosophy in his second year. He joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), and taught adult literacy classes in a Black township with his childhood friend, John Clare. He completed an Honours degree in Philosophy in 1963.

At UCT he was friendly with Alan Brooks and others who joined the African Resistance Movement (ARM), a White liberal organisation that initiated acts of sabotage before it was crushed by the apartheid regime. According to Turner’s daughter Jann, writing in 2008: “Brooks was arrested and badly tortured and, on his release, left for England. In 1974 Dad commented that ‘the ARM episode, in which disillusioned students tried sabotage, shattered their own and others lives and did great damage to the cause they were fighting for, made me acutely aware of the dangers of students turning to violence’.”

In 1964 Turner married his sweetheart Barbara Hubbard just before they left for France, where their daughter Jann was born.

Turner secured a place at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris, France where he completed a doctorate in 1966 after producing a thesis on the political philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, titled Quelques implications de la Phenomenologie Existentielle (Implications of existential phenomenology). He met with Sartre on one occasion.

Turner was transformed by his stay in Paris. Observing the nascent French student movement convinced him that students could wield genuine power. He returned to South Africa in 1967 and took up a series of teaching posts in Cape Town. He became involved in protests against the government’s decision to refuse permission for anthropologist Archie Mafeje to teach at UCT.

Turner moved to the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal - UKZN) in 1970 when he got a post to teach political philosophy. Soon after he arrived in Durban, he met Steve Biko, who was then studying medicine at Natal University’s Black Section, and Omar Badsha, an activist and photographer who introduced Turner to Mewa Ramgobin and other activists about the same time as they were reviving the Natal Indian Congress.

Biko had by then broken away from NUSAS to form the South African Student Organisation (SASO), the first organization to initiate the programme of what would become the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Turner was receptive to Black Consciousness and acted as a mediator between SASO’s black students and white students from NUSAS, advising white students on the way forward after the exodus of Black students.

Turner was invited by Ramgobin to join the board of the Phoenix Settlement Trust and with Professor Lawrence Schlemmer, Badsha, Ela Gandhi organized the first of two work camps at Phoenix settlement which had a profound influence on the students that attended them.

Turner also developed strong relationships with academics at the university, people such as Fatima Meer, Lawrence Schlemmer and Eddie Webster.

In 1970, Turner married Fozia Fisher, whom he met through Biko. Their marriage was a daring act of resistance against apartheid’s Mixed Marriages Act, the Immorality Act and the Group Areas Act. Turner converted to Islam so that he could be married by an imam and to appease Fisher’s Muslim parents. The marriage was conducted at the home of Fatima and Ismail Meer, the imam being the only cleric prepared to marry the couple. The marriage was conducted according to Muslim rites, and was not legally recognised in South Africa.

He bought a house in Bellair, Durban, where he gathered together a community of activists, academics and unionists, including Lawrence Schlemmer, Gerry Maré, and Turner’s student Peter Hudson and others. The house became a centre of left activity.

Turner threw himself into political activity in Durban, conducting workshops and forming, with Badsha and others, the Education Reform Association, a body that sought to popularize alternative education methods, a school of thought influenced by radical educationist Paulo Friere.

According to Badsha, Turner always bought at least three copies of books he was interested in and passed on copies to Biko, Badsha and others.

Turner also established a forum called Platform, which met fortnightly at the University of Natal, Warwick Avenue campus, where he and guest speakers gave lectures on Marxism and other topics reflecting the thinking of the New Left, which he had imbibed during his stay in Paris. Turner’s Marxism was decidedly non-Stalinist, Sartrean and aligned to the New Left., which appealed to activists and students.

Turner was loved by his students – especially because of his teaching style, which transformed the teaching situation into a more democratic encounter than that found at traditional schools and universities. This was a movement that the BCM was also propagating, with many activists at the time influenced by the works of Ivan Illich and Paulo Friere.

A passionate lecturer pioneering the teaching of radical political philosophy and an advisor to NUSAS, Turner encouraged activism by whites in the aftermath of the 1969 departure of blacks from NUSAS. Among the students, he taught were lawyer Halton Cheadle, Dan O’Meara (Marxist historian, author of Volkskapitalisme), and political philosopher Peter Hudson.

Turner who was an advisor to NUSAS provided support to students such as David Hemson, Halton Cheadle, David Davis who had started the Nusas Wages Commission. With the help of trade unionist Harriet Bolton, Cheadle and others, Turner and the Student Wages Commission found a base at the Garment Union head office in Durban to help with the formation of the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund (GFWBF). He encouraged white students to get involved in the unionisation of black workers, spurring the formation of the NUSAS Wages Commissions in 1971. Turner, Fisher and others became the moving force behind the Institute for Industrial Education (IIE) and the South African Labour Bulletin. During and after the Durban strikes of 1973, he worked with Gerry Maré, Alec Erwin, Eddie Webster and John Copelyn, and helped to recruit and train many future labour organisers.

Jann, Kim, Fozia Turner (Richard Turner's second wife) and Barbara Follet (Richard Turner's first wife (née Hubbard)

Turner like Fatima Meer, Schlemmer and other white and black academics and theologians became  contributors to the publications of the Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society (SPROCAS). He compelled his colleagues to consider more radical recommendations than those prescribed by traditional liberalism. In an influential response to the final report of the SPROCAS Political Commission, in 1972 he wrote the utopian The Eye of the Needle: A Guide to Participatory Democracy in South Africa, in which he envisioned a decentralized socialist society.

The "Durban Moment" of intellectual excitement centring on Turner ended when he was banned along with seven national NUSAS leaders in March 1973, when several BCM leaders, including Biko, were also banned.

Turner's banning made it illegal for him to teach or publish. The University of Natal showed its support for Turner by keeping him on the academic staff. He continued, informally, to advise unions and remained in contact with student leaders and secretly supervised the work of some student activists like Bobby Marie. It became illegal for him to teach, publish or be quoted. A brief respite from his non-person status occurred when he testified as a defence witness during the 1975-76 trial of "the SASO Nine", officially known as The State vs Cooper and eight others.

In 1976 the government denied him permission to take up a prestigious Humboldt fellowship in Germany.

Shortly after midnight on 8 January 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. Following four months after Biko's death in detention, Turner's murder created a public outcry.

Rick Turner’s funeral was attended by about a thousand people – many of them former students, colleagues and activists, as well as banned people who were allowed to attend, among others. Although the funeral was conducted according to Islamic rites, it was an inter-faith affair, with Muslim, Hindu, Catholic and Jewish priests delivering speeches.

He was buried in the Muslim cemetery at Brook Street in Durban.

Turner and the Security police

Even before he was banned, Turner was an object of scrutiny by the apartheid security police unit, the Bureau of State Security (BOSS). His phone was tapped, he was followed and they attempted to kill him on at least one occasion when he was with Omar Badsha at a work camp at Phoenix Settlement when they were nearly run over by security police agents with a motor car.

His Bellair home was firebombed in March 1972, and in December his car tyres were slashed and his engine damaged.

In his book on Turner, Choosing to be Free, Billy Keniston reproduces a slew of security police reports about Turner, many of them painting a picture of his political activities, trying to present these as “communistic” activities.

Eventually, he was killed by an assassin, in all likelihood a security cop.

Predictably, after his death, police investigations turned up no clues, and his killers were not identified.

The original investigating officer, murder and robbery captain Chris Earle, testified at a section 29 hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa. He said he suspected from the beginning that Turner had been killed by apartheid state agents.  Earle said Turner had been killed by “people who were part of the security forces and that they wanted to protect this and not have it known”. He added that BOSS operative Martin Dolinchek “and possibly other members of BOSS were involved. I also had information available that the firearm used to shoot the deceased was of Angolan origin.”

Earle requested that Dolinchek’s firearms be forensically tested but this request did not lead to any conclusion.

The TRC said: “Former Vlakplaas Commander Eugene de Kock reported that one of his informants, former BOSS member Piet Botha, told him that Dolinchek had killed Turner and that Dolinchek’s brother-in-law, Mr Von Scheer, drove the getaway vehicle.”

Dolinchek also testified but denied he had killed Turner.

Both Earle and his immediate superior, Major Christoffel Groenewald, told the TRC that they believed the investigation had been obstructed when Groenewald and his superior, Brigadier Hansen (now deceased), were called to Pretoria and instructed not to waste time investigating Dolinchek, because there was no proof of his involvement in the killing. Both expressed the view that Dolinchek had been responsible for the killing.

The TRC found that national police commissioner General GL Prinsloo ordered the investigation to be shut down.

Turner, Biko and Black Consciousness

Turner was a close friend of Biko, and one of the first white left leaders to comprehend the significance of the Black Consciousness Movement – to recognize that the move to separate themselves from whites was not a racist tendency, as some considered, but an authentic attempt to spur blacks on to regain the will to fight apartheid and to lead the struggle.

He displayed a genuine understanding of the BC point of view and affirmed its insights with great clarity. Above all, he understood the power dynamics at play between whites and blacks, and the need for blacks to break free of the psychological strangleholds within which they had been locked by a long history of oppression.

But the BC intervention was clouded by confusing threads. Some whites saw the BC position as black racism, while apartheid apologists cheered the BCM stance, thinking it was in line with “separate development”. Confusion also arose from the BC position that whites had to leave blacks to themselves to operate on their own to overthrow apartheid and that they should instead “conscientise” other white people, to transform white society into an anti-racist community. These left whites perplexed as to their role in the struggle against apartheid.

Turner wrote an article, “Black consciousness and white liberals”, published in Reality in July 1972, which “untangled” some of the confusions surrounding the relationship between white liberals and BC activists. He spelt out the reasons BC activists rejected earlier modes of resistance, in which liberal whites were cultivated by black progressive forces.

“As a group, white opponents of apartheid are not a significant political force and are certainly not going to be the chief agent in the overthrow of apartheid. It would therefore be wrong for blacks to orient their political activity towards an appeal to whites to help them. There has always been a tendency for black political organisations to make appeals to the moral sensibility of the whites. It is this strategy that is being attacked by proponents of ‘Black Consciousness’. And of course, they are quite right to attack it. Blacks cannot leave their case to be argued by whites in the context of white political institutions.”  

He also tried to show in this article where the attacks by ‘Black Consciousness’ on ‘white liberalism’ are justified, and where they are too sweeping”. He argued that there had to be a role for both whites and blacks and that sweeping rejections of any group were unproductive and based on dubious and simplistic assumptions. He argued that apartheid was dehumanizing for both blacks and whites and that its destruction would be a liberation for both groups – for humanity.

He wrote: “Black consciousness is a rejection of the idea that the ideal for humankind is ‘to be like the whites”. This should lead to the recognition that it is also bad for whites ‘to be like the whites’. That is, in an important sense both whites and blacks are oppressed, though in different ways, by a social system which perpetuates itself by creating white lords and black slaves, and no full human beings.”

Turner’s interventions allowed for a certain amount of cooperation between the white NUSAS students and SASO’s black students, and a certain division of labour when he encouraged the white left to get involved in union building.

Turner and the Labour movement

Turner was involved in several initiatives to resuscitate the labour movement among black workers, which had been suppressed after the banning of the South African Council of Trade Unions (SACTU) in the early 1960s.

After Black students left NUSAS, white activists tried to “conscientise” their own communities but were unsuccessful and instead got involved in organizing black worker unions. Turner was involved with the Wages Commission as an advisor before the “Durban Moment” in 1973, when spontaneous strikes crippled industries in the city.

The Wages Commission was initiated by mainly white students, many of them taught by Turner, at the University of Natal in 1971. It sought to investigate the wages of Black workers and stressed the fact that black workers’ wages were generally well below that of a living wage, sometimes less than half of a living wage.

Turner acted as an advisor, but there was also something of a break with his orientation in the commission, whose main drivers – among them Halton Cheadle, Charles Nupen, Karel Tip and David Hemson, all except Hemson heavily influenced by Turner – were turning to a more traditional Marxist class analysis to help them mobilise black workers. They experienced class analysis and the necessity of connecting with the working class as a way out of the immobility imposed on them by the Black Consciousness Movement. But they remained in a dialogue with Turner.

On the other hand, Dan O’Meara asserts that it was Turner who suggested that white students work with black workers as a way out of their immobility. “Rick’s analysis started to give the white left a sense that there was something that we could do, something that we could do that SASO couldn’t,” he says in Keniston’s biography, Choosing to be Free.

Soon after he was banned in March 1973, Turner started the South African Labour Bulletin (SALB), together with Badsha, Bolton, Cheadle, Fisher, Webster and Dave Hemson. Turner had written up virtually all the articles for the first issue, but he appointed John Copelyn to act as editor as well as author, since he was not allowed to publish his works. The Bulletin survives to this day as a major source of analysis and information about the labour movement in South Africa.

In the wake of the Durban strikes in 1973, the GFWBF became transformed to accommodate the need of the growing move to form Industrial Unions.  white radicals formed and the Trade Union Advisory and Coordinating Council (TUACC) was formed to coordinate the various unions that were in the process of emerging. Turner was not directly involved in TUACC but acted as an advisor, playing a key background role with to the organisers, who included David Hemson, Paula Ensor, Halton Cheadle, Omar Badsha, Johnny Copelyn, Alec Erwin and Gerry Maré.

Alongside the formation of the trade unions Turner and Fisher with Schlemmer and the TUACC leadership also formed the Institute for Industrial Education (IIE) soon after he was banned. The IIE, essentially a correspondence school, straddled the worlds of education as well as labour, with many of its members also members of TUACC. This initiative would prove to be a point of conflict (see next section).

Turner and democratic pedagogy

Throughout his career as an academic, Turner was interested in transforming education into a more democratic process. His lectures resembled discussions more than prepared texts delivered from a podium in a lecture hall.

This interest in drawing the best out of students and in tailoring the education process to the specific experience and needs of oppressed people was very much in the air, and was also taken up by the BCM.

Much of this project was based on the works of Ivan Illich, Paulo Friere and liberation theology. Friere, a Brazilian theorist of education and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), developed a “critical pedagogy” to teach colonised people in a manner that would uplift them.  The main tenet of this school was that teaching and learning were political acts, and that education was a process of remaking oneself. He declared in his book: “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors.”

Illich, an Austro Croatian Catholic who worked in Latin America, was critical of the manner in which institutions approached social problems, especially the school system, although he extended his analysis to medicine, labour and economic development, among others. He lamented that the education system was obsessed with certificates and failed to develop critical thinking. His book Deschooling Society (1971) was immensely influential in South Africa and throughout the world.

Turner used these theorists to inform his approach to education, and in 1973, together with Fisher, Cheadle, Badsha, Schlemmer and Eddie Webster, Bolton he formed the Institute for Industrial Education (IIE). The educational programme, aimed at workers, sought to stimulate the study of capitalism, the role of workers and the working-class organization. Turner developed much of the curriculum for the courses, while Fisher served as director.

According to Schlemmer: “What Rick was saying, through the IIE, was, ‘Listen, these workers are oppressed people. We’ve got to take their consciousness seriously and see where they’re at. We need to give them the intellectual tools and the awareness to occupy whatever power bases they’re going to create, meaningfully’… He asked us not to decide for them, but to let them see for themselves what they must do to change their situation.”

The project produced a study, The Durban strikes, subtitled “Human Beings with Souls”, in 1973, which was published in 1974.

As mentioned in the previous section, the IIE worked closely with TUACC, with many members belonging to both organisations. Despite promising beginnings, the IIE lasted about two years before it was shut down by TUACC after hostile camps developed regarding the direction of the institute. Conflicts revolved around allegations that each camp was imposing itself on workers rather than taking direction from them, and Turner and Schlemmer insistence that the IIE should also serve the needs of other groupings. Things came to a head when they wanted to serve the needs of the newly established Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) established by Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi,  the Zulu homeland leader.

TUACC’s John Copelyn was particularly impatient with Turner’s emphasis on education, as he was convinced that organizing workers was a greater priority. He accused Turner of using the IIE to influence the ideas of workers and of being “anti-organisation”. Turner’s decision to admit anyone, not only workers, was also criticized for attracting the “wrong kind” of workers.

TUACC wanted to bring the IIE into the council as a subcommittee, but the project fell apart in 1975.


Peter Hudson, Let’s Talk about Rick Turner, from  Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, Volume 10, 2016|Billy Keniston, Choosing to be Free; The Life Story of Rick Turner; Jacana Press; Johannesburg; 2013|Teresa Barnes, Gail M Gerhart, Thomas G Karis, Antony J Levine and Nimrod Mkele, From Protest to Challenge: Political Profiles, 1964 - 1990, volume 7.|Indiana University Press and University of South Africa Press (forthcoming) Turner J. 'Rick Turner'

Collections in the Archives