Farewell to labour’s living ancestor, Eddie Webster!

by May 1, 2024Amandla 92, Labour

Thanks to Comrade Dinga for allowing us to publish his eulogy delivered at the memorial for Eddie Webster.

Since his passing, tributes to Eddie Webster have been pouring in from across the globe. Different people have been giving testimonies of what Eddie meant to them. Different generations claim Eddie as theirs. A younger generation of sociologists call him a ‘Sociology Madala’. In tributes, Eddie has been described as a living ancestor, a term that he coined. 

I stand here to declare that Eddie was also a living ancestor of the labour movement. As many people appeal to ancestors to intercede on their behalf when faced with intractable challenges, the labour movement turned to Eddie Webster when it had massive challenges. As a movement and in return, we received advice, caution and generosity. 

Eddie not only researched and studied labour organisations. In his way, he contributed, for more than five decades, to the building of worker organisations in South Africa and abroad. It is, therefore, no accident that the country’s two biggest trade union federations, with news of Eddie’s passing, both dipped their flags and saluted him. Saddened by his passing, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu declared, “We will forever be grateful for the mentoring, guidance and expertise he provided for countless members of Cosatu and the trade union movement until his very last days”. The South African Federation of Unions (Saftu) also acknowledged Eddie’s contribution and said, “The democratic trade union movement owes its very existence to the contributions made by Professor Webster and his generation”.

Examples of Eddie as living ancestor

Without going far back, I want to relate three recent instances that hopefully will show how the trade union movement regarded Eddie Webster as its living ancestor. 

Eddie not only researched and studied labour organisations. In his way, he contributed, for more than five decades, to the building of worker organisations in South Africa and abroad.

Firstly, Cosatu affiliates in 2005 were unable to deal with a chasm that emerged between the federation’s top leaders. “New men of power”, as American sociologist C. Wright Mills described modern-day labour leaders, were at each other throats, threatening to tear apart the movement that Eddie Webster and his generation built. Affiliates felt that mediation was required. And who did they turn to? Eddie Webster. 

The second example to show that Eddie was not just a friend of labour, but its living ancestor happened in 2012. After six years without a director, the future of the Chris Hani Institute­—a think tank that Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) established in the early 2000s­—appeared very bleak. Who did the organisations turn to, to stabilise the Institute? Eddie Webster. Eddie served as the director of CHI from Sep 2012 to September 2015. 

This week when I went back to some old union documents, I came across the third illustration of Eddie’s ‘living ancestor status’ within the labour movement. I found an interesting report by the then Cosatu’s secretariat coordinator, Neil Coleman. The report reads as follows.

A prominent academic close to the labour movement stated that Cosatu is often good at opening the doors through engagement but not as good at walking through them in the sense of taking forward gains made. Cosatu has reached a similar conclusion and resolved to address this weakness. As a result of these discussions, the Cosatu Central Executive Committee (CEC) resolved in May 2008, to establish the “Walking through Open Doors Project”.

Who do you think is the “prominent academic” referred to in the report? Take a guess. Eddie Webster.

Forty years of collaboration

I first came across Eddie Webster’s name in 1980, as a young worker employed at Metal Box in Epping Industria, Cape Town. His name and writings were all over the pages of a journal he founded and was associated with, the South African Labour Bulletin (SALB).

I first came across Eddie Webster’s name in 1980, as a young worker employed at Metal Box in Epping Industria, Cape Town. His name and writings were all over the pages of a journal he founded and was associated with, the South African Labour Bulletin (SALB). Face-to-face, I met Eddie in 1985 at an annual conference of the Association for Sociology in Southern Africa (ASSA). Before ‘decolonisation of universities’ became a fashionable and career-advancing slogan, progressive academics such as Eddie opened academic conferences to activists. With the country under successive declarations of states of emergency and under a torrent of restrictive measures, ASSA conferences became platforms for animated discussions, involving academics and activists. 

Since then, Eddie and I interacted and even worked together on projects. Together, we did a review of South Africa’s preeminent social dialogue body, National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). We co-authored a book chapter on tripartism in Southern Africa. 

With an increased realisation of his status as a living ancestor of the labour movement, Eddie became emboldened to summon unionists like me for ‘insider interpretations’ of what was happening inside unions. “I need to talk to you”. This will be the message on the other side of the telephone line. If not next to his pool or garden, the sessions moved to different spots around Johannesburg. Firstly, it was at the Radium Beerhall in Orange Grove. The sessions then moved to a Cut & Craft coffee shop on Kensington’s Queen Street. Of late, Mike’s Kitchen in Parktown was the venue I got summoned to. With his notepad, pen in hand, brushing and pulling his beard, Eddie will interrogate me about this or that development within the labour movement. Without verbally expressing it, Eddie had a way to say, “Cut to the chase”. 

Throughout these interactions, as the labour movement and unionists, we were showered with generosity. Before he initiated the Global Labour University (GLU) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Eddie moved the time for his Masters’ course on industrial and economic sociology to late afternoons, so that working people and trade unionists, could register and undertake the course. It needed someone with Eddie’s knowledge to avoid the class descending into bullfighting between myself and the then-general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (Num). Eddie had to always remind us that we were in academic seminar, not in a Cosatu conference, known for robust exchanges between Num and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

It would be remiss for me not to tell this gathering that I am a recipient of Eddie’s generosity. In 2005, I got into trouble with “union tops” at Numsa and I was thrown out of my union. When Eddie was convinced that there was an act of injustice in the actions of the union, he offered me a job at his research unit, the Sociology of Work Project (Swop) at the University of the Witwatersrand. I was fired by Numsa on 24 June 2005. As a real fixer, Eddie ensured that I had a contract and was able to start at Swop on the first day of the following month. He came with a plan in one week. I was with Swop for three-and-half years, as I fought for reinstatement through the courts. I left Swop after the Labour Court found that I was unfairly dismissed and ordered my reinstatement. For his generosity, I will forever be indebted to Eddie.

To demonstrate how Eddie was also a man of principles, I recall when we did the review of Nedlac, the Department of Labour for whom we did the work did not agree with a recommendation that the council be moved from the department to the Presidency. The department did everything to dissuade us, but Eddie stood firm. “It’s our recommendation and it stands”. 

Eddie’s legacy lives on

Eddie’s generosity and eagerness to support the labour movement did not mean fence-sitting when it came to issues of principle. He was not married to logos but in love with organisation of workers. The convoy of Uber scooter drivers that accompanied his coffin to the grave yesterday bears testimony to his ongoing search for the most appropriate form of organisation that workers can forge. 

The last paragraph of his 2015 exit report as the director of the Chris Hani Institute (CHI) shows how Eddie was not afraid to raise the most difficult questions.

Our challenge will be to successfully create the CHI as a forum for overcoming the deep divisions that have emerged on the left over the past five years, and particularly since the Marikana Massacre. The question raised by the divisions in Cosatu House is whether the vision I have developed for the CHI can be achieved within Alliance structures, or whether a radical re-think of its current location and board membership is now necessary.

Although supportive and committed to the labour movement, as his definition of ‘critical engagement’ states, Eddie refused to let loyalty cloud evidence and his independent findings as a social scientist. Commitment did not replace his conscience as a human being. In death Eddie continues to be generous. Now gone as a living ancestor, the labour movement does not have to embark on rituals to accompany (ukukhapha) or return his spirit (ukubuyisa). His work, writings and legacy are with us. We must turn to them. Long live the spirit of Eddie! Long live!

Dinga Sikwebu is a retired Numsa official and Global Labour University (GLU) Associate.

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