Rick Turner

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Person.png Professor Rick Turner  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
(Philosopher, anti-apartheid activist)
Professor Rick Turner.jpg
BornRichard Albert David Turner
25 September 1941
Stellenbosch, South Africa
Died8 January 1978 (Age 36)
Alma materUniversity of Cape Town, Sorbonne
Spouse • Barbara Follett
• Foszia Fisher

Richard Turner (25 September 1941 – 8 January 1978), known as Rick Turner, was a South African academic and anti-apartheid activist[1] who was assassinated by the apartheid state in January 1978.

Nelson Mandela described Turner "as a source of inspiration":[2]

"Human beings can choose.
"They can stand back and look at alternatives.
"Theoretically, they can choose about anything.
"They can choose whether to live or to die.
"They can choose celibacy or promiscuity, voluntary poverty or the pursuit of wealth, ice-cream or jelly.
"Obviously they can’t always get what they choose.
"But that is a different question."
- Rick Turner

Studied at the Sorbonne

Rick Turner graduated from the University of Cape Town in 1963 attaining a BA Honours. He continued his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris where he studied philosophy under Henri Lefebvre[3] and received a doctorate for a dissertation on the French intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre.[4]

He returned to South Africa in 1966 and worked on his mother’s farm in Stellenbosch for two years before lecturing at the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Rhodes. He moved to Natal in 1970 and become a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Natal and in that same year he met Steve Biko and the two formed a close relationship and became the leading figures in The Durban Moment.[5]

Turner became a prominent academic at the University and assumed a leading role in radical philosophy in South African and published a number of papers. His work was written from a radical existential perspective and stressed the virtues of bottom up popular democracy against authoritarian Stalinist and Trotskyist strands of leftism. He was a strong advocate of workers' control and a critic of the reduction of politics to party politics.


In 1972 Turner wrote a book called "The Eye of the Needle - Towards Participatory Democracy In South Africa". The South African authorities thought that the book exerted a strong influence on opposition thinking with its plea for a radically democratic and non-racial South Africa. Such a society, he argued, would liberate whites as well as blacks.

In 1973 he published a widely influential article titled "Dialectical Reason", in the British journal Radical Philosophy. In the same year he was banned by the South African authorities for five years. He was not allowed to visit his two daughters or his mother and had to stay in the Durban area. 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 sufferings that bannings impose on people. The fast was supported by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. After his banning Dr Turner was kept on the staff at the University even though he was not allowed to lecture.[6]

Political activism

Prof. Turner attended the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) terrorism trial of nine Black Consciousness Movement leaders as a defence witness in March 1976 where he expounded on theories expressed in The Eye of the Needle. In November 1976 Prof. 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. Turner was also involved with the re-emerging black trade union movement of the 1970s, although the relationship was fraught at times.[7]

Assassinated by the apartheid regime

On 8 January 1978, Rick Turner was shot through a window of his home in Dalton Avenue, Bellair (a suburb of Durban), and died in the arms of his 13-year-old daughter, Jann Turner. After months of investigations police investigations turned up with no clues, and his killers were never identified. However it is widely believed that he was murdered by the apartheid security police, led by Craig Williamson.[8]

Rick Turner's assassination happened within a broader context of escalating state repression. Just a few months before Turner's death, Steve Biko was murdered in custody and a series of Black Consciousness Movement activists and sympathetic whites were banned. One of these whites, journalist Donald Woods, managed to flee the country with his family just one week before Turner's death, on the 1st of January 1978.[9]

Fatima Meer, a lifelong Indian activist and close friend of Rick Turner, survived a fire-bomb attack on her house just a few days before Turner was murdered.[10]


Professor Turner is recognised as the one of the most significant academic philosophers to have come out of South Africa. His work is still read in popular radical movements and South African academics like Anthony Fluxman, Mabogo Percy More, Andrew Nash and Peter Vale have continued to make use of his work.


Rick Turner's first wife, Barbara Follett, later became a British Labour Party Member of Parliament.

Writing by Rick Turner

Articles on Turner


External links

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