Comment: Who shot my dad?

Click to follow
For 20 years Jann Turner, daughter of new Labour MP Barbara Follett, has been haunted by the night in Durban when an assassin murdered her father, an anti-apartheid activist. Here she tells of her fruitless search for the killer

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, Jacques Pauw, had blown the lid on a place called Vlakplaas, a farm outside Pretoria that was the headquarters of what was officially known as Section C1 of South Africa's security police, but unofficially as its death squad. 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 Pauw. As it happened he was going to be in town the very next week.

We had dinner in a restaurant on St Mark's 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 who fired the shot through the window of the bedroom I shared with my sister, who it was who ran away from the house as my father lay bleeding, who it was that left me trying hopelessly to resuscitate a dying man.

My father, Dr Rick Turner, was 36 when he died (I was 13). He was an academic and activist who had taught politics and philosophy at Natal University in the early 1970s. He was also involved in the formation of independent trade unions, which became the focus and forum for opposition to apartheid at a time when the African National Congress (ANC) was in exile or on trial.

While my father organised and radicalised students on Durban's "white" campus, Steve Biko was igniting a whole new movement on the "black"campus. Steve and my father were both banned in February 1973. And they were both killed within months of each other. For workers and students my father was at the centre of revitalising opposition to apartheid. For me, he was the centre of the world. My parents divorced when I was five. Dad moved to Durban while my sister Kim and I went to Cape Town with Mum. I felt the distance from him acutely, a distance made greater by the banning order which prevented him from leaving the Durban district. Kim and I were visiting him for the Christmas holidays when he was shot. We were alone in the house with him that night. He died in my arms.

There has been an amnesty for apartheid-era murder in South Africa, but nobody has applied for it in the case 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 (the Bureau of State Security) and the security police. Now I have 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 confess. But it's unlikely.

I was not the first to embark on this quest. I took up the search 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. But then she got too old and sick to investigate any further. It has been a strange mission, one that has taken me into some of 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 - Dirk Coetzee, for example, a confessed member of the security police's death squad who crossed over to the ANC in 1989. He said he didn't know who killed my dad, but after that meeting I cried with horror at the realisation that we were connected, Dirk and I. We were all too intimately bound up by the 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 Channel 4, following up on all the leads the police had left hanging. Too many people have mentioned the name Andy Taylor in connection with my father for it to be mere coincidence. Taylor was a security policeman who used to come to our house, checking up on my father before and after the banning. So I called Taylor and asked to meet him. He refused. He said the murder was a great mystery which had long puzzled him. I said it was 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 out of each other's business". He was sorry but he couldn't help me.

In the 1980s my grandmother had pursued BOSS agent Martin Dolinschek all the way to the Seychelles. In 1993 I found him in Zambia - in African National Congress "custody". We talked for several hours. He said he didn't do it and I believed him, but I was sure he knew more than he told me. Dolinschek is now a senior manager in the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the present-day equivalent of BOSS. There was one fresh lead. An ex-cop told me that he had heard, through friends in the security police, that a man called "Rooibaard" had boasted about killing my

father. According to my source this Rooibaard was killed in a mysterious single-vehicle accident around April 1978. The source suspected that he'd been murdered in order to shut him up. 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 the Durban police's murder and robbery department 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 he was lying and that someone ordered him to shut the investigation down when he got too close to Dolinschek and BOSS. It all reeked of a cover-up. Three weeks ago Earle was jailed for corruption.

Then there's Vic McPherson. A couple of Christmases ago I found myself in the livid-pink interior of the John Vorster Square Officers' Club in Durban. I'd been taken there by McPherson, an ex-security policeman who had been in charge of observing 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 from him hit me from several metres away. He bought me a double Bacardi and Coke for every one that he drank. I was straining to keep up and stay focused. He admitted that my father's neighbour, a man called Jack Tubb, was one of his agents, and he spoke freely of his close relationship with the Tubb family. Vic McPherson is now a senior officer in our new South African Police Services, having been promoted four times since 1990.

While all this helped fill in some of the detail surrounding my father's death, it brought me no closer to the answer I sought. But then 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 break through the wall of silence surrounding BOSS and the security police.

Last month sources within the commission told me that their investigations had revealed a high-level cover up. But that is all. It seems the TRC has 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, everyone with something to tell us about my father's murder? If not, why not?

Alex Borraine, acting chair of the TRC, re-emphasised to me that "the time we would like to devote to individual incidents just isn't available, there are so many others to do". It's awful, but I do understand. Truth commissioner Richard Lyster also pointed out to me that, "in Natal there are 12 investigators and 4,600 cases". Perhaps the commission's investigation was doomed from the start. It would have been more apt to have named it the Verification and Research Unit.

And yet through the search for my father's killer, culminating in the truth commission, I have found healing. Whatever I was looking for, I have found part of it.

The emotional closure began in 1993. I had been filming in my father's old house at Dalton Avenue. It was late at night, the crew wrapped and piled outside into the car. They left me alone to close the place up. It's very hard to articulate what happened next, because what I felt was so intense that I seemed to see it and hear it as well. As I walked around the house, I felt the house leaving me. Each room, his bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen - the rooms and I said our farewells to one another.

Finally I stood on the place where my father died. I felt him leave the place on the floor, I saw him rise up from there and leave that dying place. I had this vision - I don't know how else to describe it. It was a vision of me and him in a place like a wind tunnel, but the wind was pulling us in different directions. We were literally flying, but we were holding on to each other by our fingertips and the effort of holding on was enormous, the strain was unbearable. Then suddenly Dad and I let go of each other. We just flew away from each other, ripped apart by the opposing forces in the tunnel. The relief was intense. I felt peace flooding through me. It rose up from the floor, through my feet and into my body.

When I walked out of that house, down the steps to the van, it was in the present that I did so, it was now. My father didn't live there any more. I had broken through the barrier of that terrible night of his murder, past him dying and beyond to him alive. I had to walk through a wall of grief to get there, but since then I have felt him alive in me, present to me in a way he was not before.

For 15 years the past had overwhelmed my present, the past had the power to ambush me without warning. I lived with my ghosts and shadows and unanswered questions in a kind of disassociated present. It was my father who pushed me back into the world. He restored me to the present.

The process was completed in October last year. My sister and mother and stepmother flew out from Britain to testify with me before the the Truth Commission. Before testifying we spent a week travelling around South Africa, visiting my grandmother and gathering with friends of my father's to remember and to celebrate him.

At Natal University, we opened the Rick Turner Memorial Building and met students and teachers in whom my father and his work are very much alive. The wakes and memorials culminated at the hearing in Durban. Going over all that old ground was harder and more painful than I expected, but after testifying I felt lighter. I felt somehow unburdened. To be heard out by officials of Nelson Mandela's government, to have our loss so publicly acknowledged - it was terribly important.

In a sense, that emotional closure should be enough, but it isn't. It isn't because I know that there are people out there who know 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. It is to do with knowing the unknown, with naming the unnamed

My father's mother is now 89. She spends her days alone in a flat in Somerset West in Cape Town, 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 beloved son. Sometimes I think she's keeping herself alive in the hope that she will get an answer. How can I confront her with the knowledge that her chance of peace of mind has dissolved?

It is very, very hard for me to accept that I may never know who killed my father and why, to accept that the truth will remain obscured. 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, 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 20 long minutes after the bullet ripped through him? Those 20 minutes before he died? How much fear? How much regret? How much love? How much forgetting? How much forgiveness?

The truth is I'm depressed by this process. I wish that anger would spur me to action, but I know further action is pointless. I just feel dull and low. The truth is I feel I have failed him. There are people out there who do know the truth. Will someone please just tell me?

The author's first novel,'Heartland', is published by Orion at pounds 6.99.