IT’S January 8, 1978 … after midnight – and university academic and political activist Rick Turner hears a noise outside his home in 32 Dalton Road, in the Durban suburb of Bellair. Dressed in a shorty pyjamas, he walks from his bedroom to investigate. A shot rings out through a window – and Turner collapses to the floor in a crumpled heap.
His 13-year-old daughter, Jann, rushes to him, and cradles his head in her arms, but he dies soon afterwards. His killing takes place just short of four months after the murder by South African security police of another political activist, the Black Consciousness advocate, Steve Biko.
Forty years later, Turner’s killer is still walking free – if he’s still alive. But the consensus is that this assassination (and there is wide agreement too that it was a political hit) was almost certainly planned and executed by the apartheid regime’s security apparatus.
The story of that horrific evening was captured in a book about the life of Turner, ‘Choosing to be Free, the Life Story of Rick Turner’ by Billy Keniston. In it, Jann Turner, the nearest person to witnessing her father’s shooting, recalls the events of that night in a police incident report.
In it, she speaks about a devoted father reading a bedtime story to his two daughters prior to his killing, about her struggle to sleep that night, about Turner telling her to “think about the planets”, rather than counting sheep.
She speaks about cradling him in her arms after he had been shot, about him “not speaking a word”.
“He was still alive,” she says. “His face was white.”
In the decades after Turner’s assassination, a sad story unfolds of the attitude of South Africans to the murder of those who paid the ultimate price in the struggle for a free, democratic country – Biko, Aggett, Goniwe, Mkhonto, Kriel and, of course, Turner and many others.
Quite simply, far too many people didn’t give a damn. In Turner’s case, it was his daughter Jann, who did much of the digging, asked all of the questions and travelled thousands of kilometres following up tip-offs.
But all to no avail.
In an interview with another South African activist, Mark Heywood, Jann Turner said: “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 some the darkest corners of South Africa. The journey has brought me closer to my father, but never close enough to his killer.”
Turner said her own search, which began in 1989, was motivated by investigative journalist Jacques Pauw’s expose on the security police’s Death Squad headquarters at Vlakplaas
She’d met Pauw a week later in New York, and he had been quite blunt with her. He told her that father’s killer would probably never be identified. “I was more than sure that he was wrong, I was absolutely certain,” she told Heywood. But it turned out that she was wrong – and she found this depressing.
“I suppose the story was never going to have a happy ending, but I never expected the truth to be so depressing,” she said. 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 who ran away from the house as my father lay bleeding, who it was that left me trying in vain to resuscitate a dying man.”
In 2015, new hope emerged that Turner’s killer would at last be identified with the release of Section 29 hearings – previously unreleased testimony – of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But although what emerged proved intriguing, it did not identify a killer. There were plenty of pointers, though.
Among those called to testify by the TRC was Chris Earle, a then murder-and-robbery captain, his commanding officer Major Christoffel Gert Groenewald, and Martin Dolincheck, a Bureau of State Security (BOSS) operative.
Except in one notable instance, Earle, the witnesses were far from satisfactory.
Speaking about his disquiet right from the start of his investigation, Earle said he suspected early on, in the absence of any apparent motive, that agents of the apartheid state – whether police, military or from BOSS – might have been involved in the killing.
He did not believe that it was a random shooting and an aborted robbery. He also refused to take seriously an anonymous phone tip-off that the ANC was behind the assassination of Turner.
Instead he focused his investigations on the South African security apparatus. Here, he was provided with information that Dolinchek and, “possibly other members of BOSS were involved”.
It was also suggested to him that the gun was of Angolan origin. An official request that Dolincheck hand over all his firearms for ballistics testing proved fruitless. Dolincheck handed over one firearm, which was not the weapon used in the shooting.
Earle’s commanding officers were summoned to Pretoria, and soon afterwards, the national police commissioner General GL Prinsloo shut down the investigation – for “lack of evidence”.
Earle did not hide his anger about this: “It just did not carry my agreement,” he told the TRC. “I wanted to solve the case, particularly because of the claims made by the family and other persons that the police were involved.”
After this, there was just one final thing to be done to complete the process. According to procedure, the case had to be reviewed and the docket reopened six months after its termination. Earle said this routine was duly observed.
After this, the dust was allowed to settle. In the current era of political expediency, today’s generation of South Africans would do well to examine the life of Rick Turner – and what he stood for….
He was not a member of the ANC. Nor was he a member of the SACP. He did not belong to a trade union. He was not a Marxist. He followed the Muslim faith, although he had strong ties to the Christian movements
He was white, but he understood – and was understood and respected by – members of the Black Consciousness movement. Perhaps it was the unorthodoxy in his political choices that enabled him to fit so easily into the “left” politics of the 1970s. Turner’s academic journey was less than orthodox too.
Born in Cape Town in 1941, he enrolled at the University of Cape Town in 1959 for an engineering degree, but later switched course and graduated with an honours degree in philosophy.
At UCT, he joined the “liberal non-racial National Union of South African Students (Nusas). But it was in France, at the Sorbonne, that his political philosophy was shaped….He earned a doctorate on the political philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre.
What was impressive about this was that, having learnt to speak French in his twenties, he wrote his doctorate in French. By the time students at the Sorbonne, led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, took to the streets of Paris to protest against the government of Charles de Gaulle, Turner had returned to Cape Town.
But his time in Paris sharing ideas with the radical left had shaped him. His activities would lead to his banning by the South African government. But this did not deter him from giving expression to his views.
“We are born into a society, and we adopt its behaviours and values; we come to be the person that makes sense within that context,” he wrote. But at the same time, we are not doomed to accept the world-view we developed through our upbringing. We have the capacity to decide who we are, what values we believe and the structure of relationships that we want to be part of.” he added.
But perhaps most prescient, given the South Africa of today, was his observation that “freedom is not something which can simply be guaranteed by a declaration of human rights.”
Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sportswriting, politics and features