Anyone who has spent time at the University of KwaZulu-Natal will be familiar with the name Rick Turner. There’s the Rick Turner Students’ Union Building, the Rick Turner Scholarship, and part of the university campus lies on Rick Turner Road. But how many people actually know the story of Dr Richard Albert Turner?
Born in the Western Cape in 1941 to English immigrant parents, Turner completed an Honours degree in philosophy at UCT, which is where he first became active in political life, joining the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and the African Resistance Movement, a relatively short lived white liberal organisation that was involved in acts of political sabotage. In 1966 Turner completed a doctoral degree at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris, with the focus of his thesis being the political philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, a French philosopher, novelist, and political activist.
Inspired by the burgeoning French student movement Turner returned to SA invigorated. In 1970 he took up a teaching post at the then University of Natal, and was introduced to Steve Biko, who was studying medicine at the University of Natal-Black Section. Biko had broken away from NUSAS to form the South African Student Organisation (SASO), which promoted the ideals of what would go on to become the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).
The philosophy of Biko and the BCM were not always that well received, even by liberals, who were confused as to what the white person’s role in the anti-apartheid movement could be in the context of the BCM, with others even viewing their position as racist. Turner proved to be a good mediator between NUSAS and SASO, guiding the organisation on a way forward after the black students had left the union. He continued to be both a proponent and an effective mediator when it came to Black Consciousness, publishing an article in 1972 explaining BC members’ reasons for their need to form a separate group, and their rejection of the joint struggle:
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.
In the article, entitled Black Consciousness and White Liberals, Turner argued that apartheid was dehumanising for both black and white people, and that its annihilation would be a liberation for both groups:
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.
In 1973 Turner was banned by the apartheid government, along with several members of NUSAS and SASO, including Steve Biko.
Forty years ago, on the 8 January 1978, Rick Turner was shot through a window of his Durban home shortly after midnight, and died in the arms of his 13 year old daughter. The 9mm bullet that killed him was identical to those used by the South African police force. Turner was killed two months short of the end of his banning order, and only four months after Steve Biko had died whilst in police detention.