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Minister Blade Nzimande on the passing of Professor Edward Webster

Prof Webster

06 Mar 2024

The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Professor Blade Nzimande is deeply saddened by the passing of Professor Edward Webster.

Prof Webster is one of our country’s most distinguished sociologists, a progressive intellectual, an academic and labour activist, and leading scholar on the history, sociology, and politics of labour from the Marxist tradition of radical scholarship.

Prof Webster was amongst a group of young white left intellectuals and academics, who exploited the explosion of the 1973 Durban strikes, and moved in to actively support and rebuilt the progressive trade union movement, under the banner of what later became the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU).

In 1985, most of the FOSATU trade unions, together with other progressive trade unions, became part of the founding of the giant Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Prof Webster, together with his comrades, were part of the very bold progressive left that dared the apartheid regime and threw their weight fully into supporting the efforts of the organised working class, and some of their contemporaries, like Rick Turner (an academic at the then University of Natal) were brutally murdered by the apartheid regime.

Prof Webster held various teaching and research positions in some of our country’s leading universities and in other parts of the world.

One of his significant contributions was his Sociology of Work research programme at Wits University which, since the 1980’s, had trained several generations of left-wing scholars, many of whom are now leading academics, Trade unionists, researchers, and policy analysts.

Over his long and illustrious career, he published several books, over 100 articles and numerous research reports. He also pioneered a number of progressive research projects, including the research project titled ‘Hidden Voices: Left thought under Apartheid’, at the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS).

Prof Webster, together with his colleague, Prof Ari Silas, and his student Prof Sarah Mosoetsa were central in the founding of the NIHSS which I established in 2013, to support the strengthening of research and scholarship into social sciences and humanities.

Prof Webster was highly regarded and recognised locally and internationally. He was awarded various honours for his scholarly contributions, including recognition by the National Research Foundation (NRF) in 2004.

He was also the first Ela Bhatt Visiting Professor of Development and Decent Work at the International Centre for Development and Decent Work (ICDD) at Kassel University, in Germany.

In addition to his illustrious academic contribution, he helped found a number of local and international bodies and publications.

These include being a founding member of the South African Labour Bulletin and cofounding the first workers college in South Africa, the Institute for Industrial Education (IIE) in 1973.

Between 1984 and 1987, I had the pleasure of serving with Prof Webster on the board of the South African Labour Bulletin.

I further had an opportunity to work closely with Prof Webster in the late 1980s, when I became President of a broader association of sociologists, and other progressive social scientists, the Association for Sociology in Southern Africa (ASSA).

ASSA’s annual academic conferences became the premier internal left wing and Marxist debating platform on, amongst others, the struggles against apartheid at the time.

Comrade Eddie, as we called him, continued, until his death, to play a key role in providing intellectual support to the progressive trade union movement, especially FOSATU in the early 1970s through to COSATU from 1985.

He was also the founder and Chair of the Global Labour University at the University of the Witwatersrand and founder and Editor-in Chief of the Global Labour Journal.

He also served as President of the Research Committee on Labour Movements of the International Sociological Association and was a member of the Human Resources Development Council of South Africa (HRDC), under the leadership of the Deputy President of the Republic.

Professor Webster also contributed to the production of many young and Black post graduate students and scholars, in total about 42 Master’s and PhD graduates.

I have known Professor Webster in different capacities over many decades, as external examiner of my own doctoral thesis, as a fellow sociologist in labour research, and as a comrade on the Left of the political spectrum.

In one of his sentences in evaluating and endorsing my PhD thesis as the external examiner, he said though he may not agree, but he found my thesis a ‘very sophisticated defence of the theory of colonialism of a special type’ - a true scholar who was generous in engaging with all left and progressive intellectual traditions, but never compromised on his demand for intellectual rigour and thorough analyses.

He was not just a distinguished scholar and intellectual whose work enhanced our understanding of sociology, labour, work, capital, inequality, and political economy.

He was also an unwavering patriot and socialist internationalist, whose scholarly and activist pursuits were fuelled by an irrepressible commitment to social justice in South Africa and the world.

Like many who were deeply influenced by his thought, I will miss his distinctive voice, personal charisma, and compassion for the interests of the working class.

On behalf of my Departments of Higher Education and Training, and Science and Innovation, and on my own behalf and my family, I wish to convey my heartfelt condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of Professor Webster.

In particular, I wish to convey my heartfelt condolences to his long standing companion, fellow activist and historian, Luli Callinicos, who shared his vision of a non-racial, democratic, and socialist society.

An academic giant has indeed fallen! May his soul rest in peace.