David Joseph Webster

Names: Webster, David Joseph

Born: 1945

Died: 1 May 1989, Troyeville, Johannesburg

In summary: Academic, Anthropologist, activist in various organizations, most notably the Detainees Parent Support Committee.

David Webster was born in 1945, and grew up in the copper belt mines of Northern Rhodesia where his father was a miner. His family later immigrated to South Africa, where David chose to pursue a career in anthropology.  

David became actively involved in the struggle and his first anti-apartheid act was a protest in 1965 at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown. The protest was against the Grahamstown City Council’s decision barring black students from watching Rhodes University’s first rugby team. The students protested by organizing a sit-in at the library steps.

In 1970, David Webster joined the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) as a lecturer in Anthropology. Webster’s Doctoral thesis focused on the traditional anthropological topic of kinship.  His fieldwork had taken him to southern Mozambique where he was exposed to the effects of migrant labour. This led him to explore related issues such as the social history of tuberculosis and the social causes of malnutrition.

His use of anthropological research methods of living with the people as a researcher exposed him to the direct exploitation of black workers by government and business. This led him to integrate his academic critique of government policies with anti-apartheid political activism.

David's reputation as an anthropologist grew rapidly both in South Africa and abroad.  In 1976, he was invited to lecture for two years at the University of Manchester, the leading Department of Anthropology in Britain. He later returned to Wits in 1978. However, 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 assassination.

In 1981, he organised a conference of academics for a democratic society. Initially David tried to bring his colleagues with him, and formed CADS (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 by the boundaries of ivory towers and scholarly monasticism. 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.

Webster also worked with the Detainees' Parents' Support Committee (DPSC), a support group for relatives of a rapidly growing list of detainees and banished people. He was instrumental in helping relatives track down the whereabouts of their banished and detained loved ones. He was also known for his social gatherings, commonly known as “David Webster tea parties”.

The aim of these tea parties was to find creative ways to assist in the liberation struggle. He would organise to bring the families of detainees together, to share relevant information in order to obtain news and to track down the whereabouts of political detainees being held in prisons by the state security apparatus.

Apart from the DPSC, he was also involved in the End Conscription Campaign, the Five Freedoms Forum, and the Detainees' Education and Welfare Organisation. Webster and Bruce Fordyce, South Africa’s famous Comrades Marathon runner, became involved with the Five Freedoms Forum.  Together they arranged for sporting apparel such as tracksuits and running shoes to be delivered to political detainees.

It was during this period of intellectual creativity that David was to write his most relevant work, a close monitoring of the growing repression and violence in South Africa. He wrote:

'Assassinations 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'.

Webster was interested in the subject of psychological trauma and torture used on detainees by the South African security forces during interrogation. Together with his partner, Maggie Friedman, he authored a research report about repression under the state of emergency. Their work exposed the intensifying state repression and how liberation movements were finding new and creative methods of resistance. Therefore, many anti-apartheid activists interacted with Webster.

On 1 May 1989, South Africa's first official Workers' Day, Webster was killed outside his Eleanor Street home in Troyeville, Johannesburg, which he shared with his partner Maggie Friedman.  Webster's assassination came just nine months before Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

His assassin, Ferdi Barnard, was later tried and found guilty in 1998. In 1999, apartheid hitman Barnard was sentenced to life imprisonment for the assassination of Webster. He was sentenced to two life terms plus 63 years for a number of crimes, including the murder of Webster.  Barnard was a member of the Civil Cooperation Bureau, a covert unit of the South African Defence Force.

In 1992, the University of the Witwatersrand named a new Hall of Residence for students in David Webster's honour. The David Webster Hall of Residence is now home to 217 Wits University students.

Webster is to be remembered by the City of Johannesburg in the renaming of a park, which took place on the 20th anniversary of his death. Bloemenhof Park in Troyeville was therefore renamed David Webster Park in his honour. The plaque reads: "David Webster 1945-1989 Assassinated in Troyeville for his fight against apartheid - lived for justice, peace and friendship".

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