Richard Albert Turner

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Biographical information

Richard Albert David Turner


Visionary academic who inspired a generation of young activists (student's movements) and helped galvanize the labour movement's resurgence before his assassination in 1978.

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
25 September 1941
Location of birth: 
Cape Town, South Africa
Date of death: 
8 January 1978
Location of death: 
Bellair, Durban, Natal

Turner was born in Cape Town on 25 September 1941. He grew up in Stellenbosch and completed an Honours degree in philosophy at the University of Cape Town in 1963. He married Barbara Hubbard in 1964.

In 1966 he earned a doctorate at the Sorbonne with a thesis on the political philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. Observing the nascent French student movement convinced him that students could wield genuine power. He returned to South Africa and took up a series of teaching posts before moving to the University of Natal in 1970. The year 1970 also saw the end of his first marriage and the beginning of his second, to Foszia Fisher. This second marriage, according to Muslim rites, was not legally recognised in South Africa. A passionate lecturer pioneering the teaching of radical political philosophy and an advisor to the National Union of South African Students, Turner encouraged activism by whites in the aftermath of the 1969 departure of blacks from NUSAS. With the help of Harriet Bolton and others, he assisted white students to get involved in the organisation of black workers, spurring the formation of the NUSAS Wages Commissions. A moving force behind the Institute for Industrial Education and the South African Labour Bulletin* during and after the Durban strikes of 1973, he helped to recruit and train many future labour organisers.

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

Turner's friendship with Steve Biko and others in the Durban-based black consciousness movement enabled him also to act as an effective interpreter of black thinking to politically conscious whites. Though he converted to Islam in 1970 to marry his second wife, Turner maintained a continuous dialogue with students in the University Christian Movement and other church-based activists. As a contributor 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 1973, he wrote the utopian The Eye of the Needle, in which he envisioned a decentralized socialist society.

The "Durban Moment" of intellectual excitement centering on Turner ended when he was banned along with seven national NUSAS leaders in March 1973. He continued informally to advise unions and remained in contact with student leaders, but 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."

The University of Natal showed its support of Dr. Turner by keeping him on the academic staff, although he could not teach in terms of his banning order.

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.

Predictably, police investigations turned up no clues, and his killers were never identified.

• 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', from Jann Turner [online] Available at

Last updated : 17-Mar-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011