Eddie Webster

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We are gathered to pay tribute to our colleague, valued teacher and friend,

David Webster.

From time to time in the history of opposition to apartheid in our open

universities, there has arisen from within our ranks men and women who have

had the courage to transcend the narrow confines of the established role of

university teacher. By their combination of theory and practice they have been

able to go beyond the ‘ivory tower’ and engage directly with the struggle of

the majority for democracy. By challenging racist practices they have

threatened the apartheid system. David Webster was such a man.

But David was different He was different in two ways.

Firstly, David did not come from a comfortable liberal background. His

father was a miner and David was brought up in the Copperbelt in colonial

Northern Rhodesia. But unlike many graduates of working class background

David did not develop a narrow careerism. Instead he chose the difficult path

of an activist academic. What does this mean? For David it meant that he

fused the role of anthropologist with that of active engagement with the struggles,

the sufferings and the hopes of ordinary people, both black and white.

David was no common-room politician pronouncing on the struggle from a

distance; nor was he an opportunist trying to make money out of the antiapartheid

struggle. David’s involvement in these struggles was, as he himself

has said, always a personal, grass-roots experiential thing, rather than a fully

intellectual one.

David’s first anti-apartheid act was in 1965 at Rhodes University. I remember

it well as we were students together at that time. It was the period of high

apartheid, and the Grahamstown City Council had banned blacks from watching

— let alone playing in — the Rhodes First rugby team. We were outraged

and organised a dawn to dusk sit-in on the library steps. It was the time of the

civil rights movement in the South and we sang freedom songs such as WE

SHALL OVERCOME. David’s hero at the time was the liberal civil-rights

campaigner, Bobby Kennedy.

But these were dark years for opposition in South Africa. Despairing

liberals turned to acts of individual violence, others emigrated or became

apolitical businessmen. David was fortunate to join the staff of Wits in the

early 1970s as a new generation of academics began to develop a radical criti-



que of the very core of the apartheid system, the exploitation of black labour.

Although David’s PhD had been on the traditional anthropological topic of

kinship his field work had taken him to southern Mozambique where he had

been exposed to the effects of migrant labour. Arising out of this field-work

David wrote his widely quoted article on underdevelopment and migrant

labour in Mozambique. This led him to explore related issues such as the social

history of tuberculosis and the social causes of malnutrition.

David’s reputation as an anthropologist grew rapidly both here and abroad

and in 1976 he was invited to lecture for two years at the University of

Manchester, the leading department of anthropology in Britain.

This period overseas was to prove a turning point in David’s life. We all

noticed the change in his personality and his priorities when he returned to

Wits in 1978. But it was the detention of some of his students in 1981, in particular

Barbara Hogan, that was to catapult David into the role that led to his

tragic assassination on that fateful May Day morning.

I suggested at the beginning of my talk that David was different in two

ways. The first was his social background. The second was that, unlike most

people who go through a temporary phase of radicalism while students that

rapidly fades with age, David’s commitment to change deepened as he got


Initially David tried to bring his colleagues with him. In 1981 he formed

CADS — the Conference of Academics for a Democratic Society — as a

pressure group designed to persuade the university to become more involved

in community issues. In a statement of principle for CADS he wrote:

We must be prepared to broaden our concept of education beyond

the boundaries traditionally imposed on it the boundaries of ivory

towers and scholarly monastic ism. We have to understand that

education is that which enables people to take control of their own

lives. We are thus involved in a social practice which is potentially

a major force in the struggle for a just and democratic society

and we must face up to the consequences of that involvement.

CADS failed to win much support from his colleagues. David was deeply

hurt by the dismissive attitude of some. It was only recently that he began

again to interest himself in the politics of the university, as Wits began to

demonstrate a new awareness of the relationship between university and community.


w a s (jming this period of renewed intellectual creativity that Davidwas to write his most relevant work — his close monitoring of the growing

repression and violence in South Africa.

‘Assassinations’, he wrote, ‘are used as one of the methods of controlling

government opposition when all other methods such as detention or intimidation

have failed. It is a very rare event indeed when such assassinations are

ever solved’.

9 0


It was also recently that David began to write academic articles again

around his research on ethnicity and gender in a KwaZulu border community.

Those who have read them see in David’s latest work a new maturity that

benefits from his political engagement. Who knows what this new phase in

David’s life would have led to?

I had the privilege of spending an evening with David a week before he

died. He described the confrontation he had had with the security police that

afternoon at a detainees ‘tea party’. He had had to intervene on behalf of

detainees’ families when police and soldiers harassed and disrupted the tea

party. I was struck by the significance of his mediating role and how powerful

his quietly spoken manner must have been in that situation. Perhaps his unassuming

and gentle manner ironically posed the greatest threat to the violence

of apartheid.

The university has quite rightly called for his killers to be punished. Many

observers believe the finger points squarely at an element within the system

itself. They have noted that those responsible must have had information

about David’s personal life. This information could only have been gained

through intense and systematic surveillance, by bugging his telephone and following


But no amount of punishment will bring David back. The best tribute we as

university academics can make to David is to take more seriously the challenge

he made to us to become academics for a democratic society.


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Shared by craig

The submitter’s new “work” is a story of “ordinary” men and women: people, heroes, like Rick Turner, David Webster and Anton Lubowski and so many others of all shades (but mostly black), who made the ultimate sacrifice, yet whose strong sense of justice and decency led to their making their own unique contribution to the liberation of South Africa (and Namibia). The stories in my new work not only shine a light on South Africa’s turbulent and often dark past, but tell us something about the present. Therefore, it is vitally important to understand the mind of a person, the “enemy“. And that is the mindset we are truly going to have to understand to “win this current ‘war against terror’. So, by only looking to history, we always find something, a ray of hope to illuminate the present and the future.”

The submitter’s blog (with extracts from his various writings: articles, books and new manuscripts) is at



http://en.search.wordpress.com/?q=%22craig+lock%22&t=post and http://craiglock.wordpress.com  


“The most noble aspects of the human spirit – unquenchable in its search for freedom and justice.”




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