15 May 2014

South Africa: Remembering a Hero Who Fought for Non-Racialism in South Africa

guest column

Twenty-five years ago this month South African anti-apartheid activist David Webster was assassinated by an agent of the former regime's security branch.

Webster has been compared with Rick Turner, a university teacher, and Neil Aggett, a union organizer, both white South Africans who also paid with their lives for their opposition to apartheid.

Like Webster, Turner was assassinated by a security policeman in a drive-by shooting at his home, while Aggett died in detention. A recent article in the South African Mail and Guardian highlighted a common characterization of Webster, Turner and Aggett as "nonviolent, unassuming intellectual critics".

Although David Webster was an academic, I believe he would have wanted to be remembered as a South African activist, and an African - not as a white person, or an intellectual.

I knew David in the 1980s, in Johannesburg and later on trips he made to Harare. I recorded many hours of interviews with him for a book on non-racialism, and later drew on these interviews for a biography.

In addition to his day job teaching at Wits University, David was a compassionate supporter of detained activists, a brave investigator of state violence, and a lover of jazz and soccer. But what I remember most about him is how he lived his commitment to non-racialism.

When asked about his understanding of democracy, given that he had experienced life only under an undemocratic government, David said his insights came during the year he spent in a hut in a Mozambican village while researching his Master's degree in social anthropology.

"I now understand that having an education and being literate is not the same thing as being intelligent," David explained in an interview. "Many of the Chopi people I know are not able to read and write. But they certainly know how to run their lives. And they do it very well."

Webster certainly had things in common - aside from being white - with Rick Turner, the banned philosophy lecturer who encouraged whites to support black workers, and with Neil Aggett, the medical doctor turned trade unionist.But Webster also had a lot in common with an icon of the South African freedom struggle, Steve Biko, an intellectual who pioneered the Black Consciousness movement.

Biko was, like Webster, a victim of the apartheid security police, murdered by his interrogators in 1977. Biko's terrain, like Webster's, was the university; as a young medical student Biko reshaped the South African student movement after the jailing of Mandela's generation. And like Webster, Biko did not publicly advocate violence against a violent and oppressive apartheid state.

Surely the similarities in the lives of people like Biko and Webster are more relevant than their different racial identities.

The 25th anniversary of Webster's May Day murder is an occasion to remember him alongside all the others who gave their lives to South Africa's freedom struggle, regardless of their race or background, or whether they were intellectuals or illiterate.

Julie Frederikse is a filmmaker and the author of several books, including The Unbreakable Thread: Non-racialism in South Africa, 1990, Zed Books, UK; Indiana University, US; Ravan Press, South Africa; Anvil Press, Zimbabwe; and David Webster, 1998, in the Maskew Miller Longman series, They Fought for Freedom.

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