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Professor Edward Webster – Hamba kahle, Madala of Sociology

Professor Edward Webster – Hamba kahle, Madala of Sociology
Professor Edward Webster with his lifetime achievement award. (Photo: Wits Vuvuzela / Masechaba Kganyapa / Wikipedia)

Academics and activists have mourned the death of Professor Emeritus Edward Webster, who pioneered the sub-discipline of industrial sociology in South Africa.

Former students, academics and activists have described Professor Emeritus Edward “Eddie” Webster as a brilliant mind who was a friend to many. 

Webster died on Tuesday, 5 March, at the age of 81.

“I think about his unbelievable intellect and his capacity to work. He has worked all his life up to almost 82. I’ve always known him as someone who is busy or thinking about something, writing about something, debating something,” said Prof Imraan Valodia, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Climate, Sustainability and Inequality at Wits University and director of the university’s Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS).

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eddie Webster leaves a legacy of advocacy for social justice that transcends academia

Valodia said Webster was exemplary in managing to work inside Wits University while also working on broader change outside of the institution.

“He is striving to give power to those who don’t have [it]. I think better than most people, he understood the importance of power and the fact that many people are completely disempowered but have the ability to create power and change the power relations in our society.”

Valodia said Webster was always striving to get the disenfranchised to organise and create a power shift.

The SCIS said it was deeply saddened by Webster’s passing. It said he was affectionately known at the centre as “Sociology Madala”, and described him as a distinguished academic, notable activist, dedicated mentor and friend to many. 

“He played a central role in the establishment of the SCIS in 2017 as our first interim director. In subsequent years, as [a] distinguished research professor, he continued his work as an indefatigable academic, teacher and colleague. 

“Even well into his formal retirement, Prof Webster brought tireless enthusiasm, curiosity and energy to his work at the SCIS, and he will be very sorely missed by us all.”

On Tuesday, former unionist and co-founder of the Institute for Economic Justice Neil Coleman wrote on X: “Shocked by the passing today of Eddie Webster, intellectual giant and friend of workers. Involved in the re-emergence of the black union movement, he inspired many of us to a life of activism in the labour movement. A great thinker & inspiring person. Hamba kahle, Eddie.”

The South African Federation of Trade Unions’ communications manager, Trevor Shaku, said the federation celebrates Webster’s life and immense contribution to working-class movements.

Shaku said Webster was an activist throughout his life. During his youth in the 1960s, he was a student activist in the National Union of South African Students.

“He was part of the students who contributed to the revival of black trade unionism in South Africa, which suffered setbacks due to clampdowns by the apartheid government.

“He placed the study of the black working class and its independent trade unions at the centre of sociology. Arguably, he is the founder of SA industrial sociology. 

“Amongst some of his [initiatives] to develop the industrial sociology episteme was the foundation of the Society, Work and Politics Institute and the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at Wits University.”

Webster authored seven books and wrote more than 120 academic articles. His seminal work, Grounding Globalisation: Labour in the Age of Insecurity, won widespread praise. 

He was also influential in building research capacity in several trade unions.

According to Shaku, “He bridged access to the universities – the most prestigious University of Witwatersrand – for many generations of black trade unionists and community activists. He set up Global Labour University, which is focused on giving activists – overwhelmingly from the labour movement – an education on industrial trends, labour policies and globalisation, and how these impact the nature of work, rights of workers and their livelihoods.”

As recently as February 2024, Webster spoke at the conference of the International Association Strikes and Social Conflicts in Cape Town. An edited version of his speech was published by Amandla! on 1 March. 

Vishwas Satgar, a longtime activist and co-founder of the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign, said: “Rest in peace Prof and Cde Eddie Webster. South Africa has lost one of its best sociologists. The resurgence of black trade unionism in the 1970s threw up the likes of Eddie. He was part of the Rick Turner generation and stayed the course till the end.

“Your contribution to labour studies, strategic unionism and critically engaged sociology was pathbreaking. The next generation has a lot to learn from in your work and to build on.”

He said Webster had authored a chapter in the next volume in the Democratic Marxism series, The Other Side of Digital Capitalism – Technotopia, Power and Risk, looking at digital platforms, labour processes and resistance.

“This demonstrates Eddie’s ongoing concerns with the nature and future of work under capitalism.” DM

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