Who Shot My Dad? by Jann Turner
This article appeared in the UK's Independent on Sunday on November 9, 1997 and in the South African Mail & Guardian for the week of August 29 to September 4, 1997
I began searching for my father's killer in 1989. I was living in New York City at the time. I read in the paper that an investigative journalist called Jacques Pauw had blown the lid on a place called Vlakplaas, South Africa's Death Squad HQ. Horror unfolded in the forms of Almond Nofomela and Dirk Coetzee and for the first time I pictured my father's murderer as a person, rather than a state or a system. I called the New York Times and asked them to put me in touch with Jacques Pauw. As it happened Jacques was going to be in town the very next week.
We had dinner in a restaurant on St. Marks Place, later we walked the chaotic, carnival streets of the East Village and all the time we talked about murder and mayhem in a country more than half a world away. Jacques said to me that night that he didn't think I would ever find my father's killer. I was more than sure that he was wrong, I was absolutely certain.
Now my search is over. I suppose the story was never going to have a happy ending, but I never expected the truth to be so depressing. The truth is I will probably never know who came to our house in Durban that night in January 1978. I'll never know who it was that fired the shot through my sister's and my bedroom window, who it was that ran away from the house as my father lay bleeding, who it was that left me trying in vain to resuscitate a dying man.
No one has applied for amnesty for the murder of Dr. Rick Turner. Over the years there have been a series of leads, flutterings of hope when it seemed we might discover who killed him and why, but we've always ended up with the fantasies of cranks or hitting the wall of silence surrounding BOSS and the Security Police. This week I slammed into the very last cul de sac. I am tired of it, tired of returning to the horror of the night my dad was killed, tired of pushing and pushing to get to the ever elusive truth about who killed him and why, tired of doing this alone. There is a chance - because the cut off date for receipt of applications is an ever-receding one - that someone will. But it's unlikely.
I was not the first to embark on this quest. I took it up where my grandmother, Jane Turner, left off. My father was her only child. She devoted more than a decade to the search for her son's killer. I took up the baton when she got too old and too sick to investigate any further. It has been a strange mission, one that has taken me into the some the darkest corners of South Africa. The journey has brought me closer to my father, but never close enough to his killer.
It has brought me all too close to the kind of people that must have killed him. I met Dirk Coetzee in London, just after the travesty of the Harms Commission. He didn't know who killed my dad, but after that meeting I cried. I cried because I was shocked to have met a chaotic, half-crazed, human being- not a cold, calculating monster. I cried with horror at the realisation that we were connected, Dirk and I. We were all too intimately bound up by violence that he had perpetrated and that my father had fallen victim to. South Africa had screwed us both up.
In 1993 I came back to South Africa to make a documentary for British Television, following up on all the leads the police had left hanging.
Too many people had mentioned the name Andy Taylor in connection with dad's murder for it to be mere coincidence. Taylor used to come to our house, checking up on my father both before and after the banning. So I called Andy Taylor and asked to meet him. He refused. He said the murder was a great mystery which had long puzzled him. I said it seemed unlikely that he had never heard even the slightest rumour about who the killer might be. Taylor finally admitted that 'it might have been one of our guys, but we kept our noses our of each others business.' He was sorry, but he couldn't help me.
In the eighties my grandmother had pursued BOSS agent Martin Dolinschek all the way to the Seychelles. In 1993 I found him in Zambia - in ANC 'custody.' We talked for several hours. He said he didn't do it and I believed him, but was sure that he knew more than he chose to tell me. Martin Dolinschek is now a senior manager in the National Intelligence Agency.
There was one fresh lead. An ex-cop told me that he had heard, through friends in the security police, that policeman nick-named 'Rooibaard'had boasted a great deal about killing my father. According to my source this 'Rooibaard' was killed in a mysterious single vehicle accident around April '78. The source suspected he'd been killed in order to shut him up.
Then there were the Sluggett and Beelders stories - both long and involved and not worth explaining. I think those people are cranks, that they are as deluded as their stories.
I went back to London to edit the film, knowing only that South Africa was still a place where assassins could hide.
Whoever killed my father had the best assistance in covering their tracks. Chris Earle was the investigating officer at Durban Murder and Robbery in 1978. I came back to see him in 1995, when he was a Brigadier in Krugersdorp. He was still convinced that the murder was not a political one. I said that, given the circumstances, this was a ludicrous suggestion. His hands shook, but he stuck firmly to his story. I'm sure that he was lying and that someone ordered him to shut the investigation down when he got too close to Dolinschek, BOSS and the Branch. The docket reeks of a cover up.
Then there's Vic McPherson. A couple of Christmases ago I found myself in the desultory, livid pink interior of the John Vorster Square Officers Club. I'd been taken there by Vic McPherson, an ex-Security Policeman who had been in charge of surveilling my father's house. McPherson is a thin man with a whining voice and a shifty, crab-like gait. I've met him twice and each time the smell of alcohol on him hit me from several metres away. Vic bought me a double Bacardi and Coke for every one that he drank. I was straining to keep up and to stay focused.
Vic McPherson admitted that my father's neighbour, a man called Jack Tubb, was one of his agents. McPherson spoke freely of his close relationship with the Tubb family. At one point he remembered something and exploded into giggles, almost falling of his stool. 'What '' I asked, perplexed. 'No, no, no - I can't tell you. It's not something I can tell a lady,' he spluttered, shaking his head. 'I'm no lady,' I answered acidly, wondering to myself what kind of ladies came to a place like this. McPherson paid no attention to my reaction, he launched into his nasty little tale regardless, giggling almost throughout.
Once upon a time there was a little upset in the otherwise regular and orderly surveillance at 32 Dalton Avenue. One Sunday night McPherson received an urgent summons to the Tubb residence. He found the household in a state of uproar. Mr and Mrs Tubb's son and daughter in law were over for dinner. Jack knew - from experience - that on Sunday nights a couple of the students who stayed in my father's commune would go into the spare room to have sex. Not wanting to miss a trick Jack had excused himself from the dinner table and gone into the surveillance room for his own private peep show. Troubled by her husband's over long absence from their family gathering, Mrs Tubb went looking for him and found him masturbating in the shed. The dinner was ruined - as you can imagine. Fortunately for the Tubbs, agent McPherson was on hand to smooth ruffled feathers. The surveillance continued, Jack Tubb was never caught wanking again and Vic McPherson is now a senior officer in our new South African Police Service - having been promoted several times since 1990.
While all this detail gave me a vivid picture of the banality surrounding my father's death, it brought me no closer to the answer I sought. Then, out of the blue, this week the promise of a breakthrough arrived in the form of documents. Sitting in his rental car in Church Square, Pretoria, an ex- Security policeman put into my hands a ream of paper that was 'lifted' from NIA files by yet another ex-cop - who'd taken them as 'insurance.' My source believed this pile of papers would yield the vital clue, the missing piece in the puzzle of who killed Richard Turner. After several hours of reading I had made my way through the entire document and I knew it held no such thing. All it does is confirm the extent of the surveillance he was under for all those years. The most chilling documents in the pile are 'source reports' from people who got very close to my father - suggesting that there was at least one spy amongst his inner circle of friends and trade-union comrades.
The only possible clue is an unattributed and undated list of suspects which includes Dolinschek and his brother in law; Wladimir I. Van Scheers. Also 'Nick Rossouw (dood)' and one Corrie Van Deventer. I've never heard of Rossow or Van Deventer before. Why not' Was Rooibaard Nick Rossouw'
One particularly creepy transcript, stamped GEHEIM, is dated March 8, 1977. It's a report of an interview conducted on March 1st of that year by Martin Dolinschek. At that point my father had one year left of his five year banning order. In that last year he was often depressed. In many ways the banning had worked, isolating him from his teaching, from the new movements in the country and from friends who were also banned, or elsewhere. So he had applied to leave the country, in order to take up a Humboldt Fellowship in Germany. Dolinschek was there to assess his application.
Dolinschek reports that 'No one but the subject and the interviewer were present during the interview which was conducted in the lounge of the house. Once Fisher (my step-mother) entered the room and was introduced by TURNER as his wife. She didn't say a word, gave the interviewer a dirty and hostile look and left the room ... During the interview TURNER was relaxed, though at the beginning he was nervous and his hands were shaky. As the interview progressed TURNER became completely at ease and in fact acted a role of lecturer more than that of a person being interviewed.'
It was very strange for me to see this, to learn about my father through the transcript of a conversation recorded by an agent of Kruger and Vorster. Scanning the page I could hear him speaking the words; 'I don't smoke, I don't drink, or take drugs and I don't agree with any person who smokes, drinks or takes drugs. I mean, I think that the people who take alcohol, the alcholics are on a par with people who take drugs. They are both dangerous.' I hear him expressing his rage and pain about his own father's alcoholism. Through this secretly made transcript I hear him rebuking me for a lifestyle quite different to his own ascetic one.
I picture my father sitting on the sofa in the lounge at 32 Dalton Avenue, saying to Dolinschek with his little tape recorder rolling under his jacket 'our problem then is; the White's short term greediness. I've got the moral point of view which is condemned anyway, but what worries me is - now I am not talking as a moralist, but as a social scientist - that Whites cannot get away with it in the long run. If the Whites continue to monopolise the resources in a way that they are monopolising the resources now, they are going to produce an explosion ...'
Later on, as he relaxes, there is a moment in the conversation which I think says everything about him. Dolinschek asks 'what do you think about white consciousness and radical actions'' Then the transcript reports 'TURNER- (laughs) - what do you think about it'' That was my father.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered the first and last hope that my father's assassination would be officially investigated. It was a real chance to breakthrough the wall of silence surrounding BOSS and the Security Police.
This week sources within the Commission told me that their investigations have uncovered a high level cover up. But that is all. It seems the TRChave been thorough in checking out the police, but have they requested BOSS and Security Police files' Have they subpoenaed everyone I listed in my submission with something to tell us about my father's murder' If not, why not.
Alex Boraine, the acting Chair of the TRC, explained to me that ; 'the time one would like to devote to individual incidents just isn't available, there are so many others to do.' I do understand. As Richard Lyster, Truth Commissioner, pointed out to me; 'in Natal there are twelve investigators and four thousand six hundred cases.' Perhaps the Truth Commission's Investigations unit was doomed from the start. Perhaps it would have been better to call it the Verification and Research Unit.
And yet, in an important respect the Truth Commission has helped me and my family. We testified in October 1996. After the hearing I felt lighter. I felt unburdened. To have told my story, to have been heard out by officials of Mandela's government, to have our loss so publicly acknowledged - it was very important. Perhaps the emotional closure is what's most important.
In the end it was my father who restored me to the present. We had been filming in his house in 1993 and when the crew had wrapped all the equipment and loaded into the van I spent some time alone in the house, saying goodbye. I stood on the place where he died and had a vision or an hallucination, I'm not sure what to call it. My dad and me were in a tunnel with raging winds pulling us apart, but we held onto one another by our fingertips. The strain of holding on was exhausting, but I wouldn't let go. And then he did. We flew apart and suddenly I was alone. When I walked out of that house it was into the present, released of a burden on of the past.
In a sense that should be enough, but it isn't. It isn't because I know that there is someone out there who knows who killed my father and why. It is difficult to explain this need to know. It's so powerful, so visceral. But it has to do with needing to shine a light into the shadowy deed that ended my father's life and changed the course of mine. Why' Will someone please just tell us'!
My father's mother is 89. She spends her days alone in a flat in Somerset West, surrounded by fading photographs, her still sharp mind betrayed by an ever deteriorating body. I simply haven't got the courage to call and ask her how she feels about the fact that she will probably never know who killed her only child, her beloved son. How can I confront her with the knowledge that her chance at peace of mind has dissolved'
It is very, very hard to accept that I may never know who killed him and why. It is very hard to accept that the truth will remain obscured. You see some body killed my father. Somebody shot down this man who spoke gently of reason and freedom, who swore violently at the failures of his DIY projects, loved bad English cooking and Elvis and Hegel. A man who was thinking about going for a walk on the beach tomorrow with his daughters, if only the rain would let up. What do YOU think went through his mind in those twenty long minutes after the bullet ripped through him' Those twenty minutes before he died' How much fear' How much regret' How much love' How much forgetting' How much forgiveness'
There are people out there who know the truth. Will some body please just tell me'