Richard Turner: A life Expressed in Reason and lived in Freedom

DISA has recently launched an online archive of the writings and work of philosopher, activist and academic Rick Turner.  It is an excellent resource with links to his books, journal articles, essays, manuscripts and trial proceedings, amongst other materials.  The archive can be accessed at and has been developed by DISA Systems Administrator Colleen Goldsworthy using the Drupal content-management system.

Rick Turner and Foszia, Campbell Collection
Rick Turner and Foszia, Campbell Collection

More on Rick Turner from Wikipedia.

Richard Turner (born 1942 in Stellenbosch – January 8, 1978), known as Rick Turner, was a South African philosopher who was allegedly assassinated by the apartheid state in 1978. Nelson Mandela described Turner “as a source of inspiration”.

Turner graduated from the University of Cape Town in 1963 attaining a B.A. Honours. He continued his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris where he received a doctorate for a dissertation on the French intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre.

He returned to South Africa in 1966 and went farming on his mother’s farm in Stellenbosch for two years before lecturing at the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Rhodes. He came 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.

Dr Turner became a prominent academic at the University and assumed a leading role in South African political science 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 exercised 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 leading philosophy journal Radical Philosophy. In the same year he was banned 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 Dr 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 bannings Dr Turner was kept on the staff at the University even though he was not allowed to lecture.

He attended the 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 Dr 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.

In September 1977 Steve Biko was murdered by the apartheid police.[2]

On January 8, 1978, Turner was shot through a window of his home in Dalton Avenue, Bellair, and died in the arms of his 13-year old daughter, Jann. After months of investigations and predictably so, 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.

Turner has been largely left out of the pantheon of post-apartheid heroes. Most of his former comrades ascribe this to his focus on popular self management and bottom up democracy which is very uncomfortable for the post-apartheid state which is notoriously authoritarian (mixing neo-liberal managerialism with Stalinism in its practices).

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

Turner’s first wife, Barbara Follett, later became a Labour Party Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

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  1. My printed book (promoted above) did not sell very well. That is why I decided to make it available at no cost. Here is how I am promoting it now.

    Dear colleagues,

    1) As per our previous correspondence, I want you to know about my new book. Anyone can now read it ONLINE. And it is FREE.

    The URL is

    2) Please share this URL with all who might be interested. Thank you in advance.

    The title is: “Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality.”

    This 2010 book is my autobiography. It is based on a diary I kept between 1946 and 2004 (in the USSR, Poland, France and the USA).

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    Ludwik Kowalski
    Professor Emeritus
    Montclair State University (USA)

  2. My wife is Australian born and lived here all her life. She was named after the South African Orchid, the Disa. Who is the Disa who launched the online archive of Rick Turner? Any information would be interesting. Please e-mail

  3. I was a student of Rick’s during the hey-day of student activism 1968 – 1970. I remember Fawzia and Jann and Kim attending some of Rick’s tuts (tutorial).

    I was devastated and angry (and still am!)for what the regime did to Rick.

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