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A final farewell: Continuing to walk in the footsteps of Prof Eddie Webster

A final farewell: Continuing to walk in the footsteps of Prof Eddie Webster
Professor Eddie Webster. (Photo: researchgate.net / Wikipedia)

Ari Sitas pens a eulogy for Prof Eddie Webster who died on 4 March and has been described as ‘a towering figure in South African sociology’.

Dear Eddie,

We are living through difficult times – times of violence and uncertainty; times that are truly out of joint with our expectations. When I met you in the 1970s, to be taught by you, this was not the world we hoped for or expected.

eddie webster

Professor Eddie Webster. (Photo: Supplied)

The “as not yet” has not arrived, nor have we managed to find it. It’s been a long road – hiking was your joy; your hiking shoes were sturdy and were made of leather that could overwhelm its tanners. And you kept going.

The hike was through challenging terrains but it was done with love, care and solidarity, no matter the ups and downs.

Your children, family, friends, students and co-workers have always been by your side. You made us walk through history but also through real landscapes from Hogsback to Dimbaza, from Makhanda to Durban, from there to Johannesburg, Vosloorus, Witbank, Marikana, and even up the mountain in Ithaka.

Time is not only out of joint but the spaces reminded us that we might be losing our way. What we studied was ugly, metallic, industrial, deafening – and we even often made the mistake of celebrating it, forgetting or ignoring the destruction it wrought. Now we are asking:

  • Is it too late for the trees to pull their chestnuts off the fire?
  • Should we not fill up the holes we drilled on this landscape to get the shiny metals?
  • Is the scarring of this southernmost tip of the continent our permanent fate?
  • Given all the casting at 1,800°C in the foundries you have studied, apart from casting RACIAL moulds, was it worth the lungs and oxygen most black migrants donated to our wealth?

You were our teacher; we learnt to ask difficult questions. And we learnt to live with uncertain answers.

None of us will forget the glint in your eye when an idea found you.

Animated discussions would always follow, the phone would ring, there would be a chuckle, “You know, I had an idea…” And there it went, from idea to a goal to a way of reaching that goal, and then, action and energy.

Then there was excitement. There was a lot of walking – off to the library lawns at Wits; off to sit in the sun at the Great Hall steps; impulses that had to be abandoned because of the number of students who would join the group because you were there and accessible.

Then there would be your home for more discussions in Melville, and the most wonderful host, Luli, and then the realisation, Oh no, you mean she is the Luli Callinicos? That’s when we learned love is a fuel that burns brightly.

You worried a lot about the context of teaching – taking from the Freedom Charter the adage that “the doors of learning shall be opened”.

The time of racist, classist and sexist doorkeepers had to draw to a close.

The moat between the university and the people had to be filled up; a story that had started already in Durban at the Phoenix settlement; in Black Consciousness gatherings, and in and through the Institute of Industrial Education as worker education took off.

At whichever stage, even when the doors were slightly ajar, you taught us to push harder and open them. And once inside, under the creaking fans and before the neglected blackboards, you taught us to read, to listen, be critical, to argue without fear, but never to wrangle over trifles.

We may not yet have reached the future we envisioned, but we did play a part in the dismantling of what I thought was the last racial autocracy on earth: Apartheid South Africa.

Yes, many here were beaten and stung, the batons were harsh, the wasps were not obliging. But we were on the hike and proud to be with you. Now, racism is spreading everywhere faster than a virus.

Your physical hike has ended, but, as our friend Qabula intoned in one of his lines, you have joined the land of the high winds.

You will accompany us on the onward journeys, guiding and cajoling and making sure our steps do not miss the path.

In your pack that we now carry with us are the beliefs and values, the hopes and convictions, that give us strength and take us forward.

We carry your voice and your smile, your arguments and laughter with us, knowing that love for justice and peace is the fuel that gives us energy.

You did love raucous joy even in the harshest of times. Rest assured, we have inherited the dream of the festival. We know that grief will stalk and assail us at the oddest of times.

We shall let grief do its work – we each have our own sense of loss and memory scripts, but there is work to be done, yet.

Our paths have to remain open for future babies, guests, strangers and refugees.

You insisted that those who grow our food and those who bake the bread must eat; that no one was expendable or surplus; that no one was enslavable or exploitable – that no one was excludable.

We memorised the script. There will be food and there will be shelter. DM

Prof Ari Sitas is a South African poet, dramatist, civic activist and sociologist.

The idea of pulling the chestnuts off the fire is from Aime Cesaire’s Return to My Native Land, Penguin 1974. “High winds” reference from Alfred Temba Qabula’s A Working Life, Cruel Beyond Belief, Jacana 2019.

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